What you must know BEFORE travelling to Japan

After my trip to Japan, a lot of people asked me if it is a country that should be on one's bucket list. I often find these questions tough to answer - one's bucket list must be formed based on their interests, budget, what time of the year they can travel, what kind of places they like and what they like to see. Japan was never on my bucket list, I am a landscape lover who finds the utmost pleasure amidst nature - mountains, lakes, endless greenery and even beaches. Put me in a city and I begin to get restless, I do not know what to do! So I'm writing this post to let you know what to expect from Japan before you travel. You're the best judge of whether this country should be on your bucket list or not.

What to expect

  • Very friendly people top my list here. Perhaps the nicest, most helpful and refined people I have ever come across, not a lot of Japanese speak English fluently and comfortably. Yet, they will do what they can to make sure they help you out.
  • Cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka are vibrant, lively and have amazing nightlife.
  • Technological innovation is visible in almost every aspect; even if you just talk about their toilets! Haha, I was impressed.
  • You can shop in Japan! With so many streets markets as well as high-end shops and brands, there is so much you can buy in this country. Keep some time aside to explore these markets.
  • Japanese people might seem very formally and properly dressed but they are also very colourful! Step into a happening area like Shinjuku in Tokyo and you will love the vibrancy, the splash of colours and the insane amount of chaos!
  • Despite being busy and chaotic, cities like Tokyo are still very green. Parks, gardens, forests are common and can be found right in the middle of the busy streets.
  • Step away from the busy city life and you will be greeted by some amazing landscapes - Mt Fuji and Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route are two such superb examples of breathtakingly beautiful places.
  • The country is extremely safe and crime-free.
  • Numerous temples and shrines with amazing architecture can be found everywhere. Some of these are located right in the middle of the cities whilst others are located in more laid back towns, not too far from the main cities. A lot of castles can also be found, owing to the monarchy here which has been historically in ruling since 600 BC.
  • Wildlife such as deer and monkeys can be found very easily in numerous parks, in smaller towns.
  • During the spring season, the country gets adorned by colourful flowers such as cherry blossoms, hydrangeas, pink moss, wisterias and others. Many festivals take place during this time.
  • Taxis are extremely expensive so public transportation, which is very well developed, easy to use and economical, is your best bet!

Planning Stage

When to Travel: The best time to travel is usually during Spring or Autumn seasons.  

  • Cherry blossom season lasts usually from late March – mid-April. Some parts of North Japan might have the season lasting until the end of April as well. However, the ideal time to catch the best bloom would be the 1st week of April. This is the time when the country comes to life in beautiful white and light pink colours of the flowers. However, it is still a little chilly, so warm clothing is required.
  • If you miss Cherry Blossom, don't worry. May is still the spring season. It is way lesser crowded than the Cherry Blossom season and weather is much better with warmer days and cool nights. You will be able to see other flowers in bloom such as Wisterias. Hydrangeas and pink moss. Do check online which festival is ongoing during your dates of travel and you can choose to visit those places specifically which are best for viewing that festival (Eg: Wisteria Festival).
  • Summer is also a good time to visit Japan, as the temperatures would be warmer.
  • Make sure to avoid Golden Week (end April – 1st week of May) as this is the period when the residents of Japan have a string of off-days and they travel within the country to explore. Trains get super crowded, queues in places are massive, hotels are expensive or unavailable unless booked at least 3-6 months prior.
  • Autumn, which is usually in September, is a great time to enjoy the red and yellow leaves of the maple trees. Just like spring, there are certain areas which are specifically for watching the autumn colours. Click here for a post which is a great read for those visiting during the autumn season. 

Useful Tools: While planning my trip, I came across a few useful tools which I will share with you:

  • Intercity travel: A very useful tool that will help you plan your travel within Japan using trains, flights, and public transportation is Hyperdia. Just input your departure station, arrival station and time of day, the website gives you numerous options along with prices and times.
  • Japan Rail Pass: If you're planning a good amount of intercity travel and for 7 or more days, I urge you to consider getting a Japan Rail Pass. This can be bought ONLY by foreign passport holders and outside Japan. So this investment has to be made BEFORE you travel because once you're in Japan, you cannot buy this. Either you can buy this online here and get it couriered or you can find a travel agent in your city who will sell it to you for a better price. Depending on your duration of travel, you can buy a 1, 2, 3 or 4 weeks pass. This is valid on most bullet trains (Shinkansen), Limited Express trains and Japan Railway intra-city trains as well. It costs about USD 280 and is very economical for those considering not to just stick to one city and travel within Japan's various cities.
  • JR Trains Timetable: Although Hyperdia is very helpful in providing all transportation information required, the Japan Rail specific intercity trains (which are included in the JR pass) timetable can be found here and proves to be quite useful as well.
  • Itinerary planning: This is an interesting tool I came across and it might prove to be useful for those people who like to have their days planned out for them, leaving lesser room for uncertainty and flexibility. You just need to input the city, the hotel you're living in and the sites you plan to see (which can also be found on the website), and the planner puts together a viable daily plan for you. Click here to learn more.

Traveling stage

While in Japan, here are a few tools which can be of help:

  • SUICA Card: Purchase a SUICA card which is valid for within-city travel on subways, buses and even some supermarket chains. This card is valid only in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka but is very convenient, economical and easy to top up when the balance finishes. You can always get a refund at the end of your trip
  • Google Translate: Due to the immense language barrier issues, this tool is extremely useful! Just hover over any text that you don't understand and it immediately translates it into your language of choice.
  • Hyperdia by Voice: Although this app was banned for download in the UAE (where I live), it's a cool app that has the same functionality as the Hyperdia website - to check for trains in the region based on your travel time. It can be downloaded on iOS as well as Android.
  • Google Maps: For real-time information on subway trains, Google maps proved to be extremely useful.
  • People: Yes, people in Japan are very helpful and friendly. Although they may not speak English too well, they will go out of their way to try and explain things to you. Whenever you're stuck, do not hesitate in approaching a local!
  • Walking: Be prepared to walk, a LOT! Even within the cities and despite a great train and bus network to take you from one place to another, walking from the entrance of shrines to inside, through forests, is not an uncommon thing. So make sure to wear your comfortable shoes while you're out and about.
  • Food options: If you're not very experimental with food, a good amount of options are available, even for vegetarians. I urge you to try the Japanese food - especially the sushi, ramen, yakitori, Udon (noodles), Wagyu or Kobe beef and Sake while you're here. However, enough grilled chicken, Italian and Indian food options can be found for those keen.

Where to go

It may not be easy to choose which all cities to explore in Japan. So here is a guide which might be of some help:

Tokyo: A very lively and vibrant city which is crowded, technologically advanced, developed in every sense of the word yet it is clean, organized and very very green! The nightlife is amazing. Whereas most of the times, you would find people dressed properly, in formal suits and ties, running about getting to work, certain areas will surprise you by standing completely in contrast to this formal way of dressing - places where you will find the teen fashion, anime clothing, splash of all sorts of colours and a flamboyance which is so rare yet reflective of the younger Japanese crowd.

The crammed city with its skyscrapers also houses numerous temples and shrines, cultural experiences such as sumo wrestling, geisha dances, and kabuki theatre; although if you're looking for more of culture and less of city life, Kyoto might be a better option.

The public transportation system is very developed. So is the technology to go with it. Almost every place is well connected by the subway or the bus and many cities are hardly a day-trip away because of the bullet trains, which will take you long distances in a short period of time. Thus, Tokyo is a good 'base' for people who want to travel around the area but not move around with their luggage too much. A week is not a lot to spend here, considering that a few days can be spent in exploring surrounding areas.

Some day-trips you can consider taking from Tokyo include:

  • Mt Fuji (Yamanashi Prefecture - beautiful landscape)
  • Kamakura (a city of numerous temples)
  • Nikko National Park (great for hiking and nature-lovers)
  • Atami City (hot springs & coastal views)
  • Japanese Alps (mountains, lakes and beautiful landscape)

One of my favorite go-to articles about day-trips from Tokyo is here.

Where to stay:  Ginza, Shinjuku or Akasaka are good areas to stay. They're well-connected, right in the middle of all the action and have great nightlife, with numerous shops, cafes, restaurants, and enough options for vegetarians as well as non-Japanese food. 

Read my article about How to spend 5 days in Tokyo.

Kyoto: The former capital of Japan is smaller, more laid back, more cultural and without a doubt, lesser crowded. You will see a lot more people traditionally dressed here as compared to the colourful and sometimes 'loud' dressing in Tokyo. Also, unlike Tokyo, you will not see a lot of skyscrapers here. Kyoto is definitely more charming than Tokyo - with lovely little streets, wooden houses, beautiful temples, and shrines. A lot more historical and cultural, the only sign of lively and vibrant nightlife can be found near the Kyoto station.

Kyoto, like Tokyo, can also be made the base for a few day-trips. Some of these can include:

  • Nara deer park & Todai-ji temple
  • Osaka Castle & Dotunburi Street
  • Kobe
  • Hiroshima (Atomic-bomb Dome, Peace Park & Hiroshima Castle)
  • Miyajima Island (Itsukushima Shrine)

Read my article on Top 15 things to do in Kyoto.

Where to stay: The best and most convenient location to stay is near the Kyoto station. There are also some hotels near the Nijo Castle which are pretty decent.

Hiroshima: A city that was raised from the ashes (literally) after the Atomic bomb attack during the 2nd world war, Hiroshima can either be covered as a day-trip from Kyoto (it is hardly 1.5 hours away by the Shinkansen) or you may choose to spend a couple of days here. Although not a lot of the ruins were preserved, due to the immense pain they would cause bringing back memories of the attack, only the Atomic Bomb Dome remains as a reminder of the horrific past. The city is very laid back and a walk around the Peace Memorial Park, while reading and learning about the events and how the lives of people were affected due to the attack, is a good way to spend some time here.

Read my article on 5 reasons to visit Hiroshima.

Here's how to plan a 2-week itinerary for Japan.

Unusual Experiences

If you have planned to visit Japan, there are some authentic and unusual experiences that you will find only in this region. Should time allow and given an opportunity, make some room for these quirky/  interesting experiences.

  • Stay in a capsule hotel
  • Travel in bullet trains (Shinkansen)
  • Dine & watch the show at Robot Restaurant in Tokyo
  • Watch a Geisha show (Miyako Odori) in Kyoto
  • Watch Sumo Wrestling in Tokyo

Please feel free to add to my list above. You may leave your opinions, suggestions, and ideas in the comments below.

73 thoughts on “What you must know BEFORE travelling to Japan”

  1. I am reading your text and I am very happy. I went to Japan and I really love this fantastic country. I wrote many text on my blog about my beautiful trip in Japan😍😍

  2. I’m actually really surprised that cities like Tokyo have forests right in the middle of the city! It’s nice to hear they keep those in the mix of the tall buildings

  3. I may have said this before but I cannot wait till I get to Japan, It’s a country I know I’m just going to fall in love with and wont want to leave. This post is so informative. I had no idea about Hyperdia by voice, sounds like an awesome app ( I might add it to my useful websites page 😀 ) This is another one of your posts Medha that ive bookmarked. I will definitely be referring to this when I plan my Japan trip 😀

  4. OMG! I agree with you with how expensive taxis are! From my hostel to Narita airport, they quoted me $300. It was insane. but I mean, Japan is generally an expensive country.

  5. I’ve been living in Tokyo for two and a half years and I have to say I agree with almost everything you write about.
    Just one small correction. In September it is still summer in Japan with temperatures around 28 degrees. If you want to see fall and the turning of colors you have to visit much later. November is best.
    Check out my blog for more stories about Japan: http://www.socialtravelexperiment.com

  6. This is very nicely put together, and I like that you spent a significant amount of time focusing on both Tokyo and Kyoto. In truth, I can’t think of a city that I find more impressive than Kyoto, on a number of levels. Either way, this is a great, thorough post!

  7. This makes me want to visit Japan even more! Thanks for all the tips! I can’t wait to visit (especially Mt Fuji and Kyoto!) – Also good to know about Hyperdia and the Japan rail pass!

  8. So Japan has never really been on my “must visit” list – I think that’s because I know so little about it, that it’s never really interested me. This post has definitely sparked my interest though! I love the sound of all the diverse landscapes, and the colourful people/clothing! x

    1. It wasn’t really on the top of my list either but my parents wanted to go so I decided to go along, but it was such an amazing experience 🙂

  9. It’s very interesting… as Japan has never been on a bucket list either. I just forced myself to go last year (Tokyo & Nagoya) and… now I’m going back this Sunday!!!

    This time I’m going to the Kansai region, probably Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, Nara and Sakai. So it was a great read, nice to freshen up my memories of Japan and I discovered very useful tools (Hyperdia and the timetable).

    How many nights do you think is enough for Nara (I’m quite a fast traveler!).

  10. Did you try a capsule hotel!?

    I was pleasantly surprised at how friendly most people in Japan were. A lot of the people I interacted with was also very soft spoken.

    Oh man Japanese toilets .. when people ask me about my favorite thing in Japan, it was their toilets =P

    1. Haha, no I did not try a capsule hotel. I was travelling with my parents so stayed in a proper hotel 😀 Maybe next time when I travel solo! People are definitely amazing and yes, toilets are the best haha!

  11. I agree with Japanese people being friendly. They are actually the most helpful people I’ve ever met. When you’re lost, they’ll do their best to help you out even if they don’t speak English. Sometimes, they’ll even personally take you or walk you to your destination!

  12. Great travel tips post! I agree with you on so many of these things too. Spring and Autumn are the best times and i also feel doing unique things are a must. I wish i had done Kyoto, i;ll bookmark this should I ever get the chance to return!

    1. Yes Japan is so much more than neon and bright lights 🙂 There is so much culture, beautiful architecture and of course, landscapes too!

  13. We leave for Japan in less than 4 weeks and I haven’t planned anything! I could not have read this at a better time. Thank you for all the info on the train passes, activities to do, and tips for visiting. This has helped immensely!

  14. Lovely pictures, well detailed article with every small detail that a newbie would need while traveling to Japan.

    I have heard that they have more than 100 verities of Kitkat there? Sounds amazing 😛

  15. One day I hope to travel the world – will have to add Japan to my list of countries to visit now – Great article! Love your enthusiasm too – very refreshing! Have bookmarked your website for my future travel plans!

  16. Japan has been on my list forever, so this is very helpful for when I do go. I’d like to see the cherry blossom season, but I will take your advice and go in late May to avoid the crowds. All the temples and culture, and food! look amazing, so I hope to visit sooner rather than later.

  17. ur pic with cute dress with umbrella is so beautiful..i always love reading about such post before visiting any country..having been to Japan I couldn’t agree any more with you… Japanese are the friendliest people I have ever met.

  18. I didn’t know about the Japan Rail Pass – that’s really cool. It’s a joint effort of 6 railway companies and they offer it exclusively to tourists. I think more countries should learn from that! (How about a tourist-discount on the EuroRail???) Sounds like it was totally worth it if you’re going to be making your way around Japan like you did.

    1. Absolutely! And their Shinkansen (bullet) trains are so awesome, you can cover long distances in such a short span of time.

  19. This is a very exhaustive first-timers guide to Japan. For someone like me, who has not even read much on the country, there are several helpful tips to get started. Have made a note of the tech-tools that you mention.

  20. Japan is si high on my bucket list, but I never actually made it there. I am saving this post however, because I am planning to go there somewhere soon, and the information you provided is really useful! Thank you 🙂

    1. The idea of a capsule hotel intrigues me too. If I wasn’t travelling with family, it is something I would definitely have tried.

  21. This post is a SUPER helpful resource! Thanks so much for putting it together. I’ve never visited Japan but the more I learn about it the more I want to go. The landscape looks absolutely beautiful! The idea of visiting Tokyo has seemed overwhelming to me, but Kyoto might be right up my alley!

  22. What an awesome post! We might go to Japan in 2018 or 2019, so this post can be helpful! Everyone has told us how friendly Japanese people are, and since we LOVE Japanese food, we can’t wait to explore this awesome country! Kyoto and Kamakura sound awesome, so we’ll definitely include them in our trip.

  23. It’s so true about the lovely japanese people. So respectful and mindful of everything. It’s amazing how green is the whole country and it reflects in manners etc. Would love to return!

  24. Seeing Japan during the cherry blossom season is on my bucket list, but now I know about the Wisterias. Hydrangeas and pink moss, I think I’ll need to make several trips! I’ve been to Tokyo but would love to visit Kyoto to see people in traditional dress and learn more about the culture.

  25. Hi Medha, Nice and concise list of pre-requisites. I have not been to Japan yet and I have book marked this for future references. I have lived in capsule hotels in some other countries and would love to experience it in Japan, where I think this concept originated.

  26. I have already been to Japan but I was curious to see what you advices and thought are on Japan. I dont think any disagree with you about the Japanese of how polite they are! You walk on their feet by mistake and its them to politely apologize to you…thats crazy! You have done a great job and come up with great information for the first-timer to Japan! Of all the unusual experience to do in Japan from your list I have only done assisted on a Sumo tournament in Osaka. But I did stay twice in a Love hotel!😊 I was wearing a Kimono for a day, dressed like a Sumarai warrioir, went to karaoke bar dressed like a maid, seen the traditonal tea ceremony, went to a Manga festival in Osaka. Ahhh love to get back there!

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