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This post is based on an amazing guide our friend Amy Dunn-Cham compiled us full of her Japan tips on how to plan a trip to Japan years ago. We have since visited Japan five times and update this post regularly with what we’ve learnt.
Ah Japan, irasshaimase! Welcome to the land where everything just works. The land of convenience, the land of delicious food, paradox, naked strangers, and where respect permeates through every part of society and culture.
In Japan the food can be described as clean and minimalist, but never simple, which probably sums up Japan as a whole. It’s a place that both lives up to, and out does, any expectation you have upon arrival.
Uh-huh, they have the fastest, sleekest, most efficient trains (ever!), but they still have paper posters pegged up on their Tokyo subway. Yeah, they have amazing futuristic architecture, but they also have countless traditional wooden buildings in amongst it all.
Yes, they have the busiest people crossing in the world (Shibuya), but at no point is it ever chaotic, no need for anyone to bang on a cab screaming, “Hey, I’m walking here!”.
Yes, they have scores of scarily trendy, funkily clad young people who like to cosplay on weekends, but they also have evening family outings to sentos (public bathhouses).
In this Japan travel guide, we’ll help you make sense of it all and share our best tips for planning a trip to Japan.
- 2024 Update: No Japan Travel Restrictions
- When to Visit Japan
- How Long to Spend in Japan
- Video: Best Japan Destinations
- Before Your Japan Trip
- General Dos and Don’ts in Japan
- What to Book in Advance for a Japan Trip
- Top Japan Destinations
- More Japan Tips
2024 Update: No Japan Travel Restrictions
Japan reopened to independent international tourists on 11 October 2022.
Remaining restrictions were dropped on 29 April 2023, so visitors no longer need to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test.
The government also dropped the indoor masking recommendation. Many Japanese people still wear masks (on our late 2023 trip, I’d say about 30-40% of people wore them), but you are unlikely to be required to.
With the yen at the lowest it has been for decades, now is a great time to travel to Japan.
Health care is expensive in Japan, so I highly recommend purchasing travel insurance that covers Covid-19 medical expenses. SafetyWing Insurance is an excellent budget option, especially for travellers on longer trips and families (as children under 10 are free). It’s available worldwide.
If you want a more comprehensive policy with cancellation cover, check out Heymondo travel insurance, which we used on our last Japan trip (it came in handy when Simon broke his foot!). It’s also available worldwide and offers 5% off for our readers.
When to Visit Japan
We’ve visited Japan in all four seasons and don’t think there’s a bad time to go.
In winter, it’s chilly and gardens are a bit bare, but crowds are lower, you’ll find great deals on accommodation, and you’ll really appreciate those onsens (hot springs). You can also go skiing or snowboarding and have the best chance of seeing snow-capped Mount Fuji.
In summer, it is steaming hot and humid (and June is the rainiest month), but there are fewer foreign tourists around and lots of local festivals to enjoy. It’s also the best time to visit the many beaches and the only time you can climb Mount Fuji.
The most popular and best overall times to visit Japan are spring (March-April) and autumn (October – early December). This is when you can enjoy the gorgeous cherry blossoms (sakura) or autumn leaves (koyo). It’s more crowded and expensive, but the weather can be ideal and it is just stunning.
See our guide to visiting the Kyoto cherry blossoms for more information on the popular sakura season.
On our recent autumn trip, we had warm weather (up to 77ºF/25ºC) with very little rain from October until mid-November, when the temperature in Kyoto suddenly plummeted ahead of the leaves turning colour.
Shoulder seasons May and late-September/early October are also good times to visit with warm weather and lower crowds.
Two times of year I would avoid for a vacation to Japan are:
Golden Week in early May – In 2024, Golden Week is from 27 April – 6 May. This is a series of national holidays so many Japanese travel domestically, trains and hotels book up, and popular spots will be extra crowded.
New Year – Late December to early January. This is also a busy time with local travellers and most businesses close for up to four days.
How Long to Spend in Japan
How long do you need in Japan? As long as possible!
There is so much to see—we have spent months in the country and still have a long bucket list.
For first time visitors, I recommend visiting Japan for two weeks. This is enough time to see some highlights—Tokyo, Kyoto, and one or two smaller destinations. See our Japan two week itinerary for suggestions.
A week is the minimum time I recommend for a Japan trip. For a more relaxed Japan vacation, spend the whole week in Tokyo or Kyoto and take day trips. Or if you don’t mind rushing about, visit both major cities with an overnight stop on the way (such as Hakone).
Read our guide on the best places to visit in Japan to decide where interests you most and come up with an itinerary. You’ll find some suggestions at the end of this guide.
Video: Best Japan Destinations
Watch this video for Japan trip ideas.
Before Your Japan Trip
- Check if you need a visa. Visa-free travel is possible for citizens of 68 countries for stays of up to 90 days (including US, UK, Canada, Australia and the EU). Do have a return or onward flight out of the country as they may grill you upon arrival. It was the nicest immigration interrogation we’ve ever had, though.
- Purchase your Japanese Rail Pass exchange order before you travel to Japan (if needed, more on that later).
- Learn some Japanese—numbers are especially useful! While you can get by with Google Translate, it’s much more fun to learn some Japanese (which isn’t as hard as you might think) and locals really appreciate it. We are currently learning with the comprehensive Rocket Japanese online course, which includes audio lessons with natural dialogue, grammar and culture tips, and voice recognition to test your pronunciation. It’s a little pricey but unlike most subscription-based courses, you get lifetime access and discounts are often available.
- Get an International Driving Permit. You’ll need this for go-karting on the real Tokyo roads dressed as your favourite character. Insanity but one of the most fun things we’ve done in Japan.
- Arrange travel insurance. Healthcare is expensive in Japan, so make sure you are covered in case the worst happens. We’ve used and recommend Heymondo and SafetyWing (both available worldwide).
- Apply for a Mastercard credit or debit card – If you don’t already have one. Some Japanese websites don’t work with Visa so it’s good to have a backup. We used a Starling Bank debit card (UK only), which has free international transactions and cash withdrawals.
- Walk as much as possible – You will walk a lot in Japan cities so it helps to get some training in beforehand (and wear in some comfy shoes).
- Practice using chopsticks – You’ll need them to eat in almost every restaurant (curry is the exception as it’s eaten with a spoon). Getting used to sitting on the floor is a good idea for some restaurants and experiences too.
- Buy a pre-paid transport IC card for local trains, metro and buses. You just tap on and off and don’t have to worry about buying a ticket. In Kyoto and Osaka, it’ll be an ICOCA card, and in Tokyo, it’s a Suica or Pasmo, but you can use any of the cards all over the country. Physical cards are currently in short supply (due to a chip shortage), so I recommend adding Suica to Apple Wallet on your phone or watch. Visa doesn’t work as a payment method so use Apple Pay, Mastercard, or American Express to top up. We just tapped on transport with our Apple watch and didn’t even need to open the app. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for Android phones bought outside Japan.
- Set up an Airalo eSIM – You’ll want affordable data on your phone as having access to maps and Google Translate makes life so much easier. A digital eSIM is simple to set up before you arrive and prices at Airalo start at just US$4.50. We used it on our last Japan trip and it worked great. If your phone doesn’t support eSIMs, you can buy a physical Umobile SIM from a vending machine at Tokyo Narita Airport (make sure your phone is unlocked).
- Sign up to the Timeout Tokyo newsletter – To learn about special events during your stay.
- Buy tickets for Ghibli Museum and Ghibli Park – If you are a Studio Ghibli fan, you might want to visit the museum in Tokyo or new park in Nagoya. It’s essential to book ahead. See below for details.
- Research what else to book in advance – Many attractions and restaurants in Japan require advance booking so decide what’s important to you (ideally at least three months ahead) and set reminders for when bookings are available. At the end of this post you can see the timescale for what we booked for our latest trip.
General Dos and Don’ts in Japan
- Consider a Japan Rail Pass. The luxury of shinkansen (bullet train) hopping is exhilarating. No need to book seats in advance, just choose a train, wave your pass and hop on. These passes are only available to foreigners and you can order online from JRailPass.com. Read our guide to whether a Japan Rail Pass is worth it for everything you need to know after the price increase in October 2023 (it’s still worth it for some trips if you are travelling a lot).
- Bow if you are being bowed to. If you can manage it too, don’t turn your back upon exit. Don’t overdo it though or you’ll be a total gaijin, no need to bow to the supermarket checkout person!
- Pre-book accommodation. Wise anyway as the more affordable accommodation fills up fast, but also in line with the whole respect thing, Japanese people like to be prepared for your arrival. So don’t just randomly rock up at a ryokan for the night! Booking.com is our favourite site for finding hotels and guesthouses, and we also use AirBnb and Vrbo to find apartments in the big cities (which are often cheaper than hotels). See our Japan accommodation guide for recommendations.
- Go onsening! You might want to skip this in summer as hot doesn’t even come close to describing the water temperatures! But soaking in a hot spring is one of the most typical things to do in Japan and is ultra relaxing once you get over your fears of public nudity (yep, no clothes allowed!). Best of all, visit an onsen town where you can onsen-hop dressed in a kimono. See our Kinosaki Onsen travel guide for details on this lovely onsen town as well as hot spring etiquette.
- Stay in a ryokan (traditional inn). Pricey but worth it for at least a night or two for the unique experience and the amazing meals that are often included in the room rates (and many can cater for vegetarians/vegans). Our favourite ryokan is Tsukihitei in Nara, so traditional and with a magical forest setting. We also loved our private bath overlooking the scarlet maple trees at Nanzenji Ryokan Yachiyo in Kyoto (book a suite not a standard room). More budget-friendly options are Hotel Musashiya in Hakone, where our room and onsen had a view of Lake Ashi, and Morizuya Ryokan in Kinosaki Onsen, which is perfect for onsen-hopping.
- Stay in a traditional tatami mat room. If you can’t stay in a ryokan, a much cheaper way to stay in one is a traditional room in K’s House hostels—they have branches in Hakone (with onsen), Kyoto, Izu Peninsula (in a 100-year-old building with onsen), and all over the country. We never had a bad experience with this hostel chain in our budget travel days.
- Appreciate the zen-like calm on all modes of transport – no need for quiet only carriages here! Just remember that it’s rude to speak on your phone on trains in Japan.
- Use Google Translate. Many people don’t speak English, so the Google Translate app is helpful for communicating. Write what you want to say in English then show the Japanese translation to the person. Even more impressive is the feature to translate images—point your camera at a sign, menu, or food label and it translates the text instantly. It’s not perfect but when it works, it’s brilliant.
- Translate websites too – Many Japanese websites (especially restaurants) are only in Japanese so using Chrome or Safari, refresh the page and select the English option at the top. On Safari on my iPhone, I tend to select a block of text and tap translate from the popup.
- See some sumo. If you’re lucky enough to be in the country when one of the sumo tournaments is on, go! The pre/ post game rituals are fascinating to watch. If you aren’t there during a tournament, you can see a practice session at a sumo stable in Tokyo. It was one of our favourite experiences in Japan—it felt like such an honour to see these huge, impressive sumotori training so close.
- Expect bursts of freakery!
- Get your paper fortune at a Japanese Buddhist temple. Okay, we cheated and got an English one at the Golden Pavilion (see our guide on the best things do to in Kyoto), but what the hell! You can also get one at the gorgeous Sensoji Temple in Tokyo.
- Love the Japanese for their never-ending capacity to help you out, and they won’t stop until they do!
- Read these Japan books before you visit for a greater understanding of this weird and wonderful culture.
- Have some sushi – Sushi is the essence of Japan, plus sushi-train/ sushi stand up bars are so much fun watching the chefs take your order, and all shout in unison, “samon!” or “tamago!” etc. Vegetarian sushi isn’t very common, but we did find some—see our vegetarian Japanese food guide.
- Appreciate the plastic food models as works of art!
- Pack slip-on shoes. You’ll be taking your shoes on and off a lot in temples and restaurants. I wear the comfy ballet flats Allbirds Tree Breezers in warmer weather and Allbirds Wool Runner sneakers (for men and women) in cooler weather—they keep your feet cosy but can be worn without socks and easily slipped off without untying the laces. See my detailed Allbirds review.
- Shop at the 100 Yen shops. Like pound shops BUT BETTER! Daiso is a great one.
- Play in the arcades dotted around cities, the taiko drum game rocks!
- Make use of the many vending machines EVERYWHERE. You will never go thirsty in Japan that’s for sure. You can even get hot coffee…in a can! (Simon’s saviour when we had early morning trains to catch.) In fact, you can get friggin’ anything from vending machines from cheap 100 yen sake (yuk!) to hot chips (not surprisingly we did not try!) and SIM cards. In Tokyo you can use your Suica transport card to pay.
- Press random buttons on the panel next to you on the loo. It will make you giggle ;o)! Also, if it’s cold then appreciate the absolute miracle of heated toilet seats.
- Fall in love with seeing toriis (shrine gates) everywhere, especially small red ones in rows behind each other. Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto is our favourite (but go early as it’s popular).
- Love and appreciate the beautiful presentation of absolutely everything from the amazing architecture to the way bento boxes are wrapped in a napkin tied in a knot just so, to amazing manhole covers!
- Pack light. It will be much easier to hop on and off trains while travelling around Japan if you pack light, and hotels have limited storage space for luggage. Best of all, travel with just carry-on luggage. The Away Bigger Carry-On was perfect for our trip and fit overhead in trains.
- Consider luggage shipping – We haven’t used this yet, but if you have large luggage, it’s common to send it between hotels (it takes a day, so pack essentials in an overnight bag).
- Withdraw cash from 7-11 ATMs. They are the most reliable no-fee option for international cards and can be found everywhere. Make sure you always have cash on hand as many places don’t accept credit cards (although this is improving). Note that some 7-11 ATMs in popular spots (the airport, Gion), do now charge, so try to withdraw in less touristy areas.
- Use Navitime to check train times and prices (and to work out if a Japan Rail Pass is worth it for your itinerary).
- Visit BIC Camera if you need any kind of electronics. These massive stores have everything you could imagine. Take your passport if you are making a large purchase (over 5000 yen) and get it tax free. I bought a camera here and ended up getting lots of extra discounts and free accessories. It’s also a good place to buy a SIM card if you didn’t pick one up at the airport.
- Rent a car – For most visitors the best way to travel Japan is by train. Elsewhere we love road trips, but renting a car in Japan is just not worth the hassle unless you are travelling far off the beaten track.
- Open the door if taking a taxi. They are either automated or the driver will open it for you. It’s also a good idea to have your destination’s address written down in Japanese to show the driver as most don’t speak English.
- Feel bad if you need to take a break from Japanese food – Japan isn’t always an easy destination and indulging in a comfort meal can be restorative (we’ve had some excellent pizza in Japan).
- Forget to check opening hours – Japanese restaurants aren’t usually open all day and both restaurants and attractions usually have a last order/entry 30 to 60 minutes before closing.
- Go whizzing around the country too much. It can save energy to base yourself in one place and take day trips as we did in Kyoto and Okayama.
- Wear holey socks. You’ll only be embarrassing yourself when you take your shoes on/ off constantly!
- Go into an onsen without washing first, that’s just dirty dude! Also, don’t go into the bathing area with a towel wrapped around you, you’ll just look stupid. Embrace the nudity! Everyone’s naked so no-one cares. My Kinosaki Onsen guide has more etiquette tips for newbies.
What to Book in Advance for a Japan Trip
Japan is a popular destination and many hotels, restaurants, and attractions book up in advance. While you can still have a wonderful last-minute trip, it’s worth researching what you’d like to do months in advance to see what needs reservations.
On our most recent trip to Japan (in the busy autumn October/November season), this is what we booked ahead:
5 Months Before
- Flights – This is personal preference and earlier or later could also work. Tokyo Narita (NRT), Tokyo Haneda (HND), or Kansai International Airport in Osaka (KIX) are all good options to fly in to.
- Accommodation – Ryokans and hotels in smaller towns are most important to book ahead. Some hotels don’t take bookings more than 3 or 6 months in advance, though. We used Booking.com and almost all had free cancellation.
4 Months Before
- Tokyo DisneySea Hotel MiraCosta – Our favourite place to stay in Japan is right inside the best Disney park in the world. Rooms go on sale 4 months in advance at 11am JST and sell out in minutes, so it’s essential to do some practice runs.
3 Months Before
- Harry Potter Studio Tour, Tokyo – We booked 7 weeks in advance and only got an afternoon slot, so earlier is a good idea. Check Klook and the Warner Bros Studio Tour website as they have different availability.
2 Months Before
- Ghibli Park, Nagoya – Tickets go on sale on the 10th of the month at 2pm JST for 2 months later (it changed recently from 3 months). So May tickets will be on sale on 10 March. These sell out quickly, so be prepared.
- Teamlab Planets, Tokyo – Book early if you want a specific time for this interactive digital art exhibition (we wanted the first slot). We booked on Get Your Guide. The new TeamLab Borderless is also selling out fast (tickets available on Klook or direct).
- Some Restaurants – We booked Monk in Kyoto exactly 2 months in advance at 12pm JST (after five attempts) and Shigetsu in Kyoto (as we were visiting during peak autumn colour). Creating a Tablecheck account is a good idea as quite a few restaurants use it for bookings.
- Saihoji (Moss Temple), Kyoto – It’s expensive and might not be a priority with limited time in Kyoto, but it’s our favourite temple. Reservations open 2 months in advance.
- Universal Studios Japan Express Passes – These are essential to skip the lines at this very busy park in Osaka, and they do sell out. We bought the Express Pass 7 – Backdrop and Spiderman on Klook (much easier than the official site which is in Japanese only). We bought our USJ entrance tickets on Klook at the same time. See our Universal Studios Japan guide for more tips.
1 Month Before
- Ghibli Museum, Tokyo – Available at 10am JST on the 10th of each month for the following month.
- Shibuya Sky, Tokyo – Bookings open 4 weeks in advance at midnight Japan time. Book fairly soon after that to get the peak slot (one hour before sunset).
- Tours – I booked a sumo stable visit (highly recommended) and Shinjuku bar hopping tour in Tokyo. Go-karting is another fun option we’ve done before. I used Get Your Guide for most tours. Klook is a good option for tickets and attractions too.
- Tea Ceremony Ju-an, Kyoto – Learn the traditions of tea in a temple. One of the highlights of our trip.
- Sakurai Tea Experience, Tokyo – If you love green tea, don’t miss the tea tasting at this modern tea room.
- More Restaurants – I booked Saido in Tokyo, Uzu Vegan Ramen in Kyoto (reservations essential), and Ristorante di Canaletto at DisneySea (one month in advance at 10am JST exactly).
- Tokyo DisneySea and Disneyland tickets – I booked on Klook. The parks probably won’t sell out, but we didn’t want to take the chance.
- Japan Rail Pass – If you decide to get one, allow plenty of time for your exchange order to arrive by post, just in case (you activate it on arrival).
2 Weeks Before
- Shinkansen Train Seat Reservations – We used the SmartEx website, which can be difficult to set up (use a Mastercard and keep trying to authenticate the payment method) but very handy. When booking a train from Tokyo to Kyoto, choose a seat on the right side of the train for Mt Fuji views (if clear). If you have large suitcases, you’ll also need to make an oversized baggage reservation.
- Airport Taxi Pickup – From Narita Airport we get the Narita Express train, but from Haneda Airport (which is closer to central Tokyo), we prefer a taxi for ease. We booked this Haneda airport pickup on Klook.
- More Tours and Restaurants – Book any more priorities as you finalise your itinerary.
Top Japan Destinations
Japan has so much to offer but here are a few places to get you started.
- Tokyo – The best of modern Japan. This huge city has incredible food, diverse neighbourhoods, and some unique experiences. Try these cool things to do in Tokyo and enjoy the best vegetarian restaurants in Tokyo.
- Kyoto – The best of traditional Japan with many stunning temples to explore. Read the best things to do in Kyoto.
- Takayama – A smaller, quieter alternative for traditional Japan with a beautiful historic centre of preserved wooden houses.
- Hakone – For the chance to see Mount Fuji, mountain scenery, lakes, onsens, and fun transport options (cable cars and pirate ships!).
- Kawaguchiko – Even better views of Mount Fuji at Lake Kawaguchiko.
- Nikko – Stunning temples in the forest. Could be visited as a day trip from Tokyo.
- Hiroshima – Visit the moving peace memorial that commemorates the atomic bombing and don’t miss nearby Miyajima Island.
See our Japan 2 Week Itinerary for a detailed guide to visiting many of these places including things to do, transport, and where to stay and eat.
Or our guide to the best places to go in Japan has more ideas.
More Japan Tips
- Is a Japan Rail Pass Worth It?
- 54 Best Things to Do in Japan for an Unforgettable Trip
- Where to Stay in Japan: A Guide to Accommodation Options
- 20 Fascinating Books to Read Before Visiting Japan
- 16 Unmissable Places to Visit in Japan
- Vegetarian Survival Guide to Japan
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