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!
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.
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
- 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.
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.