JAPAN TRAVEL GUIDE
The "Land of the Rising Sun" with its unique culture, advanced technology, friendliness of locals, and incredible scenery make it a stunning destination regardless of the season. Japan is the world's 4th largest island country and encompasses about 6,852 islands, of which the five main islands (which make up about 97% of Japan's land area) are: Honshu, Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku, and Okinawa.
Japan was our very first overseas destination together and will always have a special place in our hearts. We spent two months living in the small town of Atsugi, just south of Tokyo, from November 2005 to January 2006. Lisa was an exchange student at the Tokyo Polytechnic University but at every opportunity we got, we went exploring as far as our feet, bicycles, and the fantastic Japanese public transportation system would take us! We only scratched the surface of this beautiful country and look forward to returning for more!
Japan can seem full of contradictions, with Western-educated people often finding the culture difficult to understand. Almost 99% of Japan’s population is of Japanese ethnicity, making them a particularly homogeneous society. The Japanese are well known for their politeness and their inability to say 'no'. Although language can be a barrier at times, it's easier than ever before to experience the well-preserved culture of Japan. Something we encountered many times, was when entering a shop caused the staff to seemingly panic. Don't take this personally, they're just afraid that you'll try to address them in English and they'll be embarrassed because they can't understand or reply. A smile and a Konnichiwa ("Hello") often helps.
Japan has full religious freedom with Shinto the largest religion in Japan, practiced by nearly 80% of the population, yet only a small percentage of these identify themselves as "Shintoists" in surveys. Nevertheless, with over 100 000 Shinto shrines in Japan, the level of participation remains high, especially during festivals.
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JAPAN QUICK FACTS
Currency: Japanese Yen (JPY)
Current conversion rate here
Electricity: 100V AC electricity. Power outlets are flat two-prong sockets (type A) as well as flat three-pronged (type B). Be sure to pack a Be sure to pack a universal travel adaptor. Be sure to carry a universal travel adaptor so you can still use all your electronic devices. If you are from a country with 220V as standard take care that your devices can function with a 110V supply.
Visa: Traveling to Japan is easy; Travelers from 68 countries across the globe can visit Japan for up to 90 days without requiring a visa. Be sure to check online for the latest visa requirements, allow enough time for processing of your visa and note that you may need to hold a valid ticket for either a return journey to your country of origin or your next country of destination. Also, make sure your passport is valid for at least 6 months after your entry. You must carry your passport with you at all times whilst in Japan. The latest entry requirements are available here.
Safety: Japan is probably one of the safest countries in the world, with crime rates significantly lower than that of most Western countries. Of course, little crime does not mean any crime, and it is no excuse to ditch your common sense. Pick-pocketing does sometimes take place, usually in crowded places. Red-light districts in large cities can be seedy but are rarely dangerous for visitors.
Note that drug laws in Japan are draconian compared to those in many Western countries. Japan does not differentiate between "hard" or "soft" drugs, with even possession of "personal-use" quantities of soft and/or recreational drugs leading to potential prison sentences of several years, followed by deportation and a life-ban from Japan.
Japan is prone to earthquakes and every few days somewhere in Japan is rattled by a quake large enough to be felt, but most of them are completely harmless. A handy safety measure whilst travelling Japan is the NHK World TV app, which broadcasts emergency notifications in English, including any earthquake- or tsunami warning and other breaking news.
Whatever you do, don’t travel without travel insurance! We would suggest checking out World Nomads or SafetyWing, for travel insurance as they have the best coverage for active travellers.
Language: Japanese is the official language and English is neither widely spoken nor understood. Even if a Japanese person understands or is able to speak some basic English, they may often still refrain from doing so as they are possibly too proud to risk making a mistake! So be sure to have a translation tool ready! They will, on the other hand, greatly appreciate you attempting a few words of Japanese - which may be more difficult than you imagine!
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JAPAN PUBLIC HOLIDAYS
2–3 January, Bank Holiday
2nd Monday in January, Coming of Age Day
11 February, National Foundation Day
20/21 March, Vernal Equinox Day
29 April–May 5, Golden Week
29 April, Showa Day
3 May, Constitution Memorial Day
4 May, Greenery Day
5 May, Children’s Day
3rd Monday in July, Marine Day
3rd Monday in September, Respect for the Aged Day
23 September, Autumnal Equinox Day
2nd Monday in October, Health and Sports Day
3 November, National Culture Day
23 November, Labor Thanksgiving Day
23 December, Emperor’s Birthday
31 December, Bank Holiday
Holidays falling on Sunday are observed on the Monday following, except
for the Bank Holidays associated with the New Year.
Also, Buddhist holidays using the Japanese calendar.
FESTIVALS IN JAPAN
The most important holiday in Japan is New Year's, with other notable celebrations being the famous Cherry Blossom Season, Golden Week and Obon. As many of the cities and villages in Japan have unique seasonal matsuri, we recommend checking to confirm the timing of upcoming festivals in the area you're visiting.
New Year: With Japanese traditionally heading home to their families for New Year celebrations, the country pretty much shuts down between 30 December and 03 January. New Year's is celebrated by enjoying festive foods with families and heading to the neighbourhood temples to wish in the New Year at the stroke of midnight.
Cherry Blossom Season: From late March to early April, Japanese head out en-masse for hanami (cherry blossom viewing) which includes a festival of picnics in parks. The exact timing of the famously fleeting blossoms varies from year to year and the estimated dates are usually published in mid-February of each year. The dates vary according to location and each location has only a two-week window of blossoming.
Golden Week: The longest holiday is Golden Week when there are four public holidays within a week and everybody goes on an extended vacation. Trains are crowded and flight and hotel prices are jacked up to multiples of normal prices, so it can be a bad time to travel in Japan.
Obon: The largest summer festival is Obon, held in mid-July in eastern Japan (Kanto) and mid-August in western Japan (Kansai). This festival honors departed ancestral spirits and everybody heads home to visit village graveyards, resulting in packed transportation.
BEST TIME TO VISIT JAPAN
Japan has four distinct seasons. If you have a flexible travel schedule, aim for either spring or autumn when you can appreciate either the cherry blossoms or changing autumn leaves.
Spring is possibly the best time of year to be in Japan, although many tourists aim for this time of the year to see the famous cherry blossoms (sakura). The temperatures are warm but not hot, there's not too much rain, and March to April brings the cherry blossoms and festivals. For the southern half of the country, cherry blossom season typically starts towards the end of March and peak in early April. The northern half has its season in mid to late April, up to Hokkaido, which is sometimes in early May. It may be rather difficult to time your visit to coincide with the cherry blossoms, as they only last for a two week period and the blossom times are usually only able to be accurately predicted around mid-February. Japan's colourful tapestries of azaleas, roses and wisterias offer additional eye-candy to the cherry blossom spectacle.
Autumn is also an excellent time to visit Japan. Starting in September, temperatures and humidity become more tolerable, fair days are common and fall colours can be just as impressive as cherry blossoms. However, in early autumn typhoons often hit the southern parts of Japan and bring everything to a standstill, so if travelling during this time, keep a lookout for any typhoon warnings. The ideal time for autumn colours for the southern half of the country is typically in the second half of November while the mountainous areas and those farther north start changing colours earlier.
Summer starts with a dreary rainy season in June and can become sweltering in July to August, with extreme humidity and temperatures as high as 35°C. You can head to northern Hokkaido or the mountains of Chubu and Tohoku to escape the heat.
Winter is a good time to go skiing or enjoy the many hot-springs. The days are short, and it becomes very cold. Heading south to Okinawa provides some relief from the cold. Late winter does reward you with the plum blossoms which precede the cherry blossoms.
SPORT & ACTIVITIES
SNOW SPORT IN JAPAN
The snow sports season in Japan can start in mid November and last until early May, with the most consistent snow from mid December to early April. Just note that mid December to early January is extremely busy, the weather can be very bad in some areas during January and some ski resorts actually close for a short period mid-season. February might just be the best month all round.
HIKING & CYCLING IN JAPAN
You can enjoy outdoor activities in Japan from April to November, although these months themselves can still be pretty cold. April and May is the beautiful cherry blossom season. July is the best month for climbing Mount Fuji. June, July and August can be very rainy and September is the peak typhoon season.
BEACH OPTIONS IN JAPAN
Japan has a long coastline with some beautiful beaches. The weather varies greatly depending on where you are, so it can be beach weather in Okinawa, in the South, as early as April although the official start of the Japanese swimming season is only mid-July!
SURFING IN JAPAN
It's possible to surf somewhere in Japan at any time of the year, even in December at Okinawa. Typhoon season, from August to October, is undoubtedly the most popular and best time for surfing.
KITESURF IN JAPAN
Japan has winds suitable for kite and windsurfing all year round, although it's not allowed during the summer swimming season at many beaches. The best time is thus from September to May, when there is good wind but it's less crowded.
JAPAN TRAVEL COSTS
Travel in Japan is significantly more expensive than other Asian countries and is more comparable to some Western European destinations. Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world, being roughly on par with cities such as London and New York. Even if you’re happy sleeping in a hostel and eating street food, you will likely need as much as $100 a day. If you want to stay in slightly nicer accommodation (simple double en-suite style) but are happy to eat local food, up to your budget to $150-175 per day and if you prefer to splurge on a fancy hotel or a few restaurant meals, you will have to increase your daily budget to well over $300.
Note that ATMs are generally easily available and can be found within most convenience stores. Japan is fundamentally a cash society and although most stores and hotels serving foreign customers will take credit cards, they often have a minimum charge as well as a surcharge.
JAPAN TRAVEL TIPS
Japan has one of the world's best transport systems. We found that, although travelling around Japan is relatively expensive in comparison to other Asian countries, it was also very easy, even taking the language barrier into consideration. There are a variety of passes available that can make travel more affordable. These days there are also online tools to assist your trip planning, such as Hitachi's Hyperdia which computes fares and directions including all the various connecting train options.
One thing we learnt very quickly is that in peak time, trains really fill up! Don’t think that you’ll wait for the next train as it will be just as full! Rather follow the locals and step into the train backwards, making your way in even if you don’t think you’ll fit!
If you are planning to travel around Japan, stopping at two or more cities, getting a Japan Rail Pass is highly recommended. This pass grants unlimited travel on all Japan Rail (JR) services, including national trains, bus and ferry services, airport transfers and the bullet trains running between major cities. We advise checking bus, boat and train schedules ahead of time using BookAway or 12Go website. Skyscanner.com or Kiwi.com are handy tools for finding great flight deals.
SIGHTS & HIGHLIGHTS OF JAPAN
What you see and do in Japan may be influenced by the time of year that you visit. However, no matter when you visit, Japan is a fantastic destination for both the old and young, the adventurous and the culture seeking.
As we lived for almost 2 months just outside Tokyo we spend many days getting lost in this incredible city. Tokyo is the world’s most populous metropolis, full of sci-fi neon, amazing architecture, and a never-ending supply of entertainment and culture. The many museums, pristine gardens and historic temples have the city catering for tourist tastes. If you’re looking for the top things to do in Tokyo, start by seeing it from its tallest tower – the Tokyo Sky Tree, stroll the streets full of mega-malls and designer boutiques, sip sake and sample grilled chicken skewers from yakitori stands.
We highly recommend booking intended tours well in advance, as Tokyo tends to be a huge tourist hotspot. Listed below are a few of our top recommendations on tours and attractions in Tokyo.
Tokyo Team Lab Borderless Museum – This digital art museum is a fantastic and unique experience. For those travelling with families, the place is completely child-friendly.
Tsukiji Fish Market Tour - The wholesale market of Tsukiji Market, which was also known as the "inner market" and was famous for its tuna auctions, closed in 2018 and moved to a new site where it reopened as Toyosu Market. However, Tsukiji's outer market with its many shops and restaurants, on the other hand, did not close and remains in business. For some local insight, we'd highly recommend taking a 3-hour food tour of the market, eating and enjoying some of the best delicacies on offer.
Robot Restaurant – Of course, this is a very touristy destination but the Robot show in Tokyo in a way sums up Japan perfectly. It's weird, over the top, and totally amazing.
Hanami (Cherry Blossom Season)
For the southern half of the country, cherry blossom season typically starts towards the end of March and peak in early April. The northern half has its season in mid to late April, up to Hokkaido, which is sometimes in early May. It may be rather difficult to time your visit to coincide with the cherry blossoms, as they only last for a two week period and the blossom times are usually only able to be accurately predicted around mid-February.
Karaoke was invented in Japan and can be found in virtually every Japanese city. This is best enjoyed together with some locals!
Spend the Night in a Ryokan
If you want to get a taste of Japanese culture, you have to stay in a ryokan (a type of traditional Japanese inn that has existed since the eighth century A.D.) for a night or two. These inns were very common and they also served to provide travellers with lodging along Japan’s highways back in the day. Living in traditional surroundings, sleeping on futons, using tatami mats, and padding through well-worn wooden halls to the public bathhouse makes this an interesting experience, albeit not in "luxury comfort".
Visit or Climb Mount Fuji
An active volcano and the highest mountain in Japan (3,776m), Mount Fuji has been and still to this day is worshipped as a sacred mountain and is a symbol of Japan. The official season for climbing Mt Fuji stretches from early July through mid-September. Some routes involve spending the night in a traditional mountain hut before starting your climb early the next morning. The panoramic views from the peak make the challenging ascent worth every drop of sweat! Visibility from the peak tends to be better during the colder seasons than during summer months, and also during the early-morning and late-evening hours. Alternatively, take a full-day coach tour from Tokyo to experience the splendour of the mountain and surrounding lakes.
Soak In One Of Japan's Hot Springs
Japan is famous for its hot springs and they can be found everywhere. Some famous resort areas include Kusatsu, Kinosaki, Dogo, Kurokawa, Beppu, Yufuin, Ginzan and Unzen. Be sure to read up on the correct etiquette before visiting the hot springs.
Indulge In Japanese Food
The best thing about Japan is the consistent attention to high quality and you will find delicious everywhere. To find the hidden gems take some time to scan the neighbourhoods with Google Maps, read reviews and see some of the photos posted. If you really want to dig deep into Japanese food and food culture the best way would be to go on a food tour:
Recommended Food Tours
Shinjuku Golden Gai Tour – This local tour takes you through the izakayas and bars of one of Tokyo's most iconic areas.
Osaka Eat Like a Local Tour – Find the best street food spots in Osaka on this tour as a local tour guide shows you around.
Kyoto Green Tea Ceremony – Quintessentially Japanese, try out the famous matcha green tea in Kyoto and immerse yourself in the local culture.
TOURS AROUND JAPAN
If you prefer travelling with a group tour, we highly recommend G Adventures. They are a super reputable company and have been running tours around Japan and the rest of Asia for ages. They have an 11-day epic classic Japan tour for 18-30-year-olds as well as a Winter highlight tour for all ages. If travelling by yourself sounds boring, definitely check out the variety of tours that G Adventures has and the details and dates of each trip. We suggest using the filters in the sidebar to help you find a tour that fits your travel dates and travel style. Click Here to View All Japan Tours.
WHAT TO PACK FOR JAPAN
What you need to pack obviously depends largely on when you are visiting Japan. We were there in the winter, and trust us when we say it gets COLD! You will definitely need thermal long sleeve tops and pants (base layers), high quality down jacket, rain jacket, proper gloves and ear warmers, warm insulating socks, and shoes or even boots. Even just before the cherry blossom season, there are still a lot of cold and rainy days. If you are petite, you will be able to shop in Japan easily, but if not, rather make sure you already have what you need before going.
In the blistering heat of Summer, you’ll need short sleeve t-shirts, shorts, skirts, a big sun hat, and slip-on open shoes. Don’t forget your sunscreen and an umbrella too because summer is also the rainy season! Having a small towel to dab the sweat is also very handy!
Irrespective of the season, be prepared to layer as the temperature inside may be very different from outside. In winter we found many shopping centers’ climate control to be set close to 30°C, which required us to strip down from large down jackets to just short sleeves!
Although the Japanese are not overly conservative, showing cleavage is frowned upon. It is also preferable to keep your shoulders covered. Short skirts and shorts are however very common and fashionable!
WHAT TO EAT IN JAPAN
Japanese food is definitely not for the faint-hearted as some of it comes across odd but if you don’t dive in head first, you are missing a big part of their culture. The influence of modern Western cuisine has markedly opened up traditional Chinese-influenced Japanese cuisine. You will find dishes inspired by wester food like spaghetti, curry, and hamburgers, however, these have been adapted for Japanese tastes and are often almost unrecognizable!
Recognized as one of the most vibrant food scenes in the world, Japan is known for its out their seafood, top-quality ingredients, and for their chefs who are masters of technique and skill. It is not uncommon to find restaurants that only specialize in a single dish which took years to master. It’s really hard not to eat well in Japan if you're willing to try a few new things:
Sushi and Sashimi
The first thing to note is that these are two very different types of food preparation. Perhaps Japan's most famous culinary exports, sushi is usually raw fish over vinegared rice, while sashimi is usually plain raw fish. These seemingly very simple dishes are in fact quite difficult to prepare properly: the fish must be extremely fresh, and it takes great skill and training to make the vinegared rice for sushi correctly, let alone the art of selecting the very best fish at the market and removing every last bone from the fillets. Accompanied with perfectly seasoned- and cooked rice, the standard of sushi is remarkably high. Unlike westernized sushi which is often overloaded with a myriad of ingredients, most Japanese sushi has a single star ingredient. Once you've tasted the real thing, your sushi standard will forever be higher.
Also known as pufferfish is considered a delicacy in Japan despite being highly poisonous. It can be rather pricey due to the tremendous skill required to prepare it, which requires complete removal of the internal organs in which the poison is found.
The Japanese dish nattō is traditionally made from fermented soybeans. It is gooey, slimy, and sticky with a very pungent smell - but some claim that it is delicious and even good for you! We couldn't quite get past the smell and texture though.
Grilled skewers of meat and vegetables, seasoned perfectly. Whether served as a full meal in yakitori restaurants or as a snack on the street, this simple but amazing dish can be enjoyed almost anywhere in Japan. In Tokyo, if you’re looking for a fun night, a visit to the yakitori stands in Omoide Yokocho is a must, followed by a few too many Bīru and sake in Golden Gai.
Ramen, known as thin, curvy noodles usually served in a rich chicken or pork broth, must be one of Japan's most well-known dishes and is both affordable and quick to prepare. The regional variations of the broth range from heavy and creamy through to light and subtle; the dish is often served with sliced scallions, a soft boiled egg, or chashu (port). An explosive increase in the popularity of Ramen in recent times means you find it anywhere, notably on "Ramen Street" on the 10th floor of the Kyoto Train Station.
Lovers of fried food will know to look out for Tempura! Shrimp, chicken, broccoli, sweet potato, eggplant…you name it and they fry it. Tempura can be found in all types of settings - and price ranges! - from street stalls selling by the piece, or served as side dishes in restaurants, through to a full-blown Michelin-star tasting menu of only tempura dishes.
WHERE TO STAY IN JAPAN
Accommodation in Japan ranges from the most luxurious of hotels to some of the quirkiest offerings (with the latter including capsule hotels, internet cafes, and overnight buses), to more traditional offerings of hostels and volunteer accommodations. Avoid disappointment and ensure new experiences by being creative, staying open to new ideas, doing some research, and booking accommodation in advance during peak seasons. Especially as accommodations tend to book out quickly during big festivals or events, we recommend checking sites like Booking.com or Agoda to help you find the best deal possible. Opting for an Airbnb on occasion can be a good option to provide you with a bit more space and some luxuries such as a washer and dryer. In some areas, competition can be fierce and if your dates are flexible and you can stay for a longer period there are some savings to be had.
Airbnb Travel Tip: Airbnb is recommended for an apartment- or villa-style accommodation. Click here for our coupon code to apply with your next booking, or see our article on how to get a $65 discount coupon code.