Who doesn’t dream about wild adventures in the land of sushi and anime — Japan is arguably one of the most traveled places in the world! People near and far have this country on their travel bucket list to witness the epicness for themselves.
Once you’ve confirmed the dates for your Japan travel, there’s still tons more to do even before hopping on your flight. The preparation before the actual trip is crucial to making it the best it could be! Everything from all the bookings to substantial research is highly urged so that you’re able to experience authentic Japan. After all, any traveler’s desire is to be immersed in the country they’re traveling to — and what’s better than a trip full of the best ways to see it?
There’s no doubt that Japan has been a target for travel so filtering out the tons of information available might be more time-consuming than one can imagine. Fret not, you’ve landed on just the right page that’s done all of that for you! From the essential key tips and preparation guide to the best spots in Japan as well as the ultimate Japan itinerary, read on for your one-stop guide to the best way to see Japan!
Things You Need To Know Before Traveling To Japan
Japan is like a whole different world! The way things are run around the country might be foreign to most people. Of course, any travel outside one’s country can get quite unfamiliar and new, but trust that traveling to Japan is on a very different scale! Jumping into something new and unfamiliar might be thrilling for some but troubling for others — not to fret though, rest assured that a travel experience in Japan is nothing short of exciting!
Just like any other trip to a different country, getting to know the basic ropes of the culture and customs can do wonders for one’s experience. Not only will you know a thing or two about Japanese culture from the advanced prep before your travel, but you’ll also be able to make necessary arrangements according to your findings that will ensure a smooth travel experience.
You can browse through site after site overloading your brain with all the information you read, or you could just take down these essential things below that you need to know before traveling to Japan. Why put in all the work when it’s already been done for you, and even listed out easily for one to process!
1. Limited English
Some may not know this but Japan’s first language isn’t English. Their native language is, in fact, Japanese! Everyone communicates in Japanese in the country. Signs are in Japanese as well, although the bigger cities like Osaka and Tokyo might have the English translation for the tourists. Other than that, it’s quite rare to get anything written or anyone speaking in English in other parts of the country.
Even though the Japanese have English as one of their subjects in elementary and high school, the lack of usage and exposure to the language has led the community of people to have very limited English speaking ability. They may know basic and some intermediate vocabulary in written form, but it’s rather difficult for them to follow a conversation except when spoken slowly.
Because of that, your best chance at communicating in English with the Japanese staff at stores and restaurants is to use extremely simple and basic language accompanied by hand gestures and miming, if possible. Usually, just out of context, the Japanese will be able to grasp what it is you’re trying to communicate.
Another method of communicating with the Japanese on your trip to Japan that is proven to be more effective as well as making your trip smoother is learning a few simple phrases and words in the Japanese language! A few pointer words like “this” and “that” alongside “please” and “thank you” will definitely add a bit of fun to your Japan travel! The Japanese are extremely encouraging when they encounter a foreigner who’s attempting to speak their native language, so why not impress them with a whole sentence of “this is my first time in Japan!”
2. Lack Of Trash Bins
This is one thing that almost every visitor who has been to Japan has noticed: there aren’t that many bins in Japan! You can walk down a few streets, and even a few more, without encountering one on your whole journey. How surprising is that! With Japan being one of the cleanest countries in the world, you’d expect to see a few on every street — how else is the country able to be so spotless?
You’ll often hear stories of the locals carrying their trash all the way back home because they haven’t encountered any bins along the way. This is extremely common, so don’t be surprised. You might even have the same experience on one of your days here!
Have with you a spare plastic bag at all times if possible. In case you accumulate a handful of trash, you won’t have to keep holding it until the next bin you come across (which will be for a while, no doubt). Just dump all the trash you have in a plastic bag to keep things tidy for yourself. This trick is extremely useful especially when you’re eating on-the-go (not recommended to do, by the way — it is pretty much against the Japanese customs which can be a whole separate article!).
3. A JR Rail Pass Might Not Be Worth It
On every travelling site and blog, everyone is telling you to get a JR Pass — promoting this “all-in” travel card because of the money-saving perks and other benefits. For a first-timer to Japan, you might end up buying into this and believing it all since there are so many different people talking about it, making the statement reliable. However, if you did a bit more digging, you’ll realise that the JR Pass might not be that worth it in the first place.
Japan is full of various train lines by different companies. Some of these lines cover the major areas, and then there are smaller lines like the subway ones. One might think that you can rely on just the main lines to get around Japan — this is true to an extent, but then you’d have to do a ton of walking if you want to get to certain places. That’ll cost you extra time, and you know what they say about time — it is priceless.
Depending on your itinerary for your trip, the JR Pass is actually not money-saving at all. If you do the math right, the JR Pass might be a colossal waste of money if anything. If you’re jumping from city to city in a full crash-course method and only seeing the main highlight of each city within a week, then maybe the JR Pass is for you. However, if you’re planning to see the best every city has to offer, give the JR Pass a pass — a Suica or Pasmo card is just as sufficient.
4. Cash Is Still The Way To Go
Japan has quite a reputation to be one of the most high-tech countries in the world. While that may be true, the country is still a bit behind in some ways. One of them is how cash seems to be the most popular method of payment than anything else. Japan is the highest in the world when it comes to the circulation of banknotes in relation to its economy.
Even to this very day, some shops and restaurants only accept cash as payment — no credit cards or touchless payment methods, only cash. Even to charge your travel cards like Pasmo or Suica, you might even need to pay using cash at some top-up machines. While bigger cities like Tokyo and Osaka are opening up to cashless payment methods like credit cards, don’t expect the rest of the country to function just like them.
For some of us, it might feel extremely unusual to carry quite an amount of cash around, but in Japan, it’s extremely normal. Don’t worry about theft and robbery — crime rates are low in the country, so your wallets are quite safe. Even if you dropped or misplaced it, you’re likely to get it back at the nearest police station with everything that’s originally in it.
5. Japanese Aren’t Always Polite
There’s the rumour that the Japanese are extremely friendly and polite. Customer service is always top notch and you’ll never leave a store or restaurant without at least a thousand and one smiles and thank yous from the staff. Even though it may be true, that’s not always the case.
Brace yourself for the “gaijin” treatment. “Gaijin” is a Japanese term to refer to foreigners in Japan, and more often than not, it’s used in a negative sense. Sometimes, you’ll be turned away from a restaurant or store just because you’re a foreigner. Strange, right?
Don’t jump to the quickest conclusion in your mind. There are a couple of reasons why this can happen, even though it’s now becoming less and less frequent. It may be because of the Japanese mindset when it comes to mistakes — they hate making them, and would prefer not to risk a situation where the (foreign) guest is unsatisfied with the restaurant service or setting. There’s also the possibility of the restaurant not welcoming any stranger in general, regardless of whether or not you’re a Japanese or foreigner. Some restaurants require an introduction or invite from an existing customer. Another reason, which is probably the most common one and not a pleasant one either, is that the Japanese would prefer not to have a table of foreigners that will possibly disrupt the regular crowd due to their actions and behaviour.
Most of the time, you’ll get turned down at the door without a clear explanation of why. Don’t be disheartened. To avoid this, simply bring along a Japanese pal or request your hotel concierge or any online concierge to make bookings in advance.
How To Prepare For Your Japan Trip
Before your Japan trip, it’s best to be well-prepared for it. You might be thinking, “how does one prepare for a trip to Japan and how is that different from any other country?” Well, on top of your regular checklist for travelling, there are a couple of things to take note of that’s exclusive to Japan.
Japan is a country filled with spectacular sights and once-in-a-lifetime experiences, you wouldn’t want to miss out on some of the best things to do and see just because of the lack of preparation beforehand, do you? Here are some of the ways to get ahead with preparing for your Japan trip!
1. Get a pocket WiFi or travel SIM card
Even though Japan is a technologically advanced country, WiFi may not be available all throughout the country. Especially if you’re travelling from city to city, you may want to consider getting yourself a pocket WiFi or a travel SIM card with data.
Cities like Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto have managed to get quite a lot of tourists all throughout the year. To appeal to more, certain restaurants and shops provide free WiFi. Even though that’s widely available in these cities, that can’t be said the same for the rest. Even the streets of these major cities do not provide WiFi unlike certain countries where you can get connected literally anywhere!
On top of it all, every city is massive even if it doesn’t look like it. Google Maps will be your ultimate best friend throughout your trip — even then, you might even get lost in the zig-zag streets. The app is extremely reliable though, especially when it comes to planning routes via trains and buses for within the city as well as between cities. The timing reflected on the app is accurate as well!
2. Take out extra cash in advance to exchange
As mentioned previously, Japan isn’t as credit card-friendly as you might think. Some stores, especially the bigger department stores as well as restaurants, might accept them but if you want the good ol’ traditional shops by the streets, there’s almost zero chance they’re accepting cards.
Bring extra cash from your home country. Depending on which country you’re coming from, it might be best to exchange the currency at home than in Japan just to save yourself a few bucks of loss from the exchange. However, if you know where to look, some exchange currency shops in Japan have quite good rates as well!
You can even take cash out from ATMs in Japan — 7-Eleven and Family Mart, for example, accept international credit cards for withdrawal. The exchange rates might not be pleasant, but it beats not being able to buy something from a store you like just because you don’t have cash on you.
3. Pack an extra bag
You’ll be surprised at how much shopping you did while in Japan. Even if you didn’t plan on it, you better brace yourself for all the cute and cool things you cannot resist spending money on. Japan is full of exciting stuff that is exclusive to the country — not to mention they’re extremely affordable if you know where to look.
You don’t want to not have space in your bags to bring them all back home — pack an extra bag to load all these goodies up. There are those that are foldable and it doesn’t take that much space at all in your suitcase. Depending on the weight of your bag, you might not even need to purchase extra baggage to check-in at the airport.
4. Plan your days
Some of us might want to just wing the whole trip and see where the city or country takes them. When it comes to Japan, you wouldn’t want to miss out on certain places in every city. To do that, it’s best to plan your days properly so as to make full use of your time in this amazing country.
There are quite a few things to think about — transport to other cities and accommodation in each city are just the obvious two, but there are also travel in-between spots as well as the best places to eat. Give yourself ample time before your trip to have all of these sorted out so you’ll have a stress-free, leisurely time in Japan.
Stops You Cannot Miss Out On in Japan
On that note of planning your days of the trip, we’re here to ease your preparation for your Japan travel instead of putting more pressure. For us to do that, we’re highlighting the stops you definitely do not want to skip out on when you’re in Japan.
While there are other cities in Japan that are worth visiting as well — Osaka, Nara and Hiroshima are great travel city stops to take as well — these three cities are especially highlighted for their unique sights.
Each city stop will feature a few sights to see so you can include in your Japan travel bucket list. Rest assured that every single one of them is worth the time spent travelling and planning — even more so than some others which is why they’re being featured!
Who hasn’t heard of Tokyo? The capital city is arguably one of the most famous cities in the whole world! Every person from every corner of the globe dreams of travelling to this neon light city and experiencing everything from the culturally rich daytime to the hyped-up nightlife. Tokyo is huge and there is so much to see — some might say that a month’s worth of travel wouldn’t be able to cover a third of what the city has to offer. Yet, we just have to highlight the top spots in this city stop for those of us who are lucky enough to even get just a few days in this magnificent city.
Needless to say that the Shibuya Scramble Square is one of the top stops on the Tokyo list. Not only is this attraction the busiest crossing street in the world, but the area it’s in is also full of delicious restaurants and fantastic bars to fill your time after. Get a little shopping in as well — everything from international brands to local ones can be found here.
Give yourself time to venture Tokyo Tower and its area. Not only will you be able to see the city from a high point view but you’ll also get to leisurely stroll the streets surrounding it — full of quaint cafes and green parks and gardens. Regardless of whether you visit in the daytime or nighttime, this Tokyo city spot has lots to offer.
What’s a trip to Japan without a stop by the ancient capital city of Japan? Unlike the current capital city where it’s full of modernity and bright lights, this city strips back down to the roots and tradition of the Japanese culture. Kyoto is historically rich, no doubt about that. Even during a random stroll down the streets in this city you’ll be able to see geishas casually wandering around.
Don’t skip on a trip to the west of Kyoto to witness the beauty of Arashiyama for yourself. What’s not to like about this attraction — a full on bamboo forest with a few local temples tucked away, as well as the potential sightings of monkeys in between the trees.
Walk down the infinite gates of the Shinto shrine, Fushimi Inari Taisha. The gates run for 4 kilometers long, so set aside about two hours for a leisurely climb up as well as some rest stops at the various shrines on your way up.
Just about an hour’s train ride from central Tokyo is the city of Kamakura. Even though it’s just nearby this bustling Tokyo, the pace of this city is extremely different. The peace and serenity will be the first few things that hit you as soon as you arrive here. Locals and foreigners alike travel down to Kamakura for a change of pace.
You can bet that the ultimate spot for this city stop is the big Buddha statue known as the Kamakura Daibutsu found in the Buddhist temple, Kotoku-in. From the entrance, you’ll feel the serene ambiance as you walk up to the center of the temple.
While it may not be just one specifically, another spot to visit in Kamakura is the Hasedera temple as well as the streets leading up to it. This street is extremely vibrant — cafes and restaurants are brimming with welcoming energy, and you can even get your Kamakura souvenirs conveniently. The Hasedera temple itself is gorgeous too, surrounded by greens and gardens dating as far back as the 8th century.
Your Ultimate Japan Itinerary!
With so many things to do and sights to see, planning an itinerary for your Japan trip can get quite overwhelming. There are too many things to think of — the duration of stay in each city and the top sights to see in every one of them are among the questions that pop in your head.
Fret not, because you’ve reached the part of the article where that’s been thoroughly thought out for you. This is the ultimate Japan itinerary you’ll ever need to see the best Japan one can ever imagine, and more! Here’s a brief rundown of about two-weeks long trip to Japan (not including arrival and departure days) — included are the cities to visit and their length of stay, along with the top sights for each one.
Day 1-4: Tokyo
Attractions for Day 1
- Shinjuku — Shinjuku Gyoen, Robot Restaurant
- Imperial Palace
- Tokyo Sky Tree
Attractions for Day 2
- Shibuya — Shibuya Scramble Square, shopping streets
- Harajuku — shopping at Takeshita Dori, Meiji Jingu Shrine, Yoyogi Park
- Omotesando — shopping at Cat Street
Attractions for Day 3
- Ueno — Ueno Park, Senso-ji, shopping at Ameyoko
Day 4: Kamakura (Day Trip from Tokyo)
Attractions for Day 4
- Kotoku-in — Kamakura Daibutsu (Buddha statue)
- Hasedera Temple
- Kamakura Yuigahama Beach
Day 5: Mt. Fuji (Day Trip from Tokyo)
Attractions for Day 5
- Kawaguchiko Lake
- Fuji 5th Station
- Chureito Pagoda
Day 6-7: Hiroshima
Attractions for Day 6
- Itsukushima Floating Dori Gate
Attractions for Day 7
- Atomic Bomb Dome
- Peace Memorial Park
- Hiroshima Castle
Day 8-10: Kyoto
Attractions for Day 8
- Nishiki Market
Attractions for Day 9
- Arashiyama Bamboo Forest
- Arashiyama Monkey Park
Attractions for Day 10
- Fushimi Inari Taisha
- Tofukuji Temple
Day 11: Nara (Day Trip from Osaka)
Attractions for Day 11
- Nara Park
Day 12-14: Osaka
Attractions for Day 12
- Namba — Dotonbori, Glico Man, shopping at Shinsaibashi & Amerikamura
- Osaka Castle
Attractions for Day 13
- Universal Studios Japan
- Umeda — Umeda Sky Building, shopping at Daimaru
Attractions for Day 14
- Sumiyoshi Taisha
- Tennoji — Shitennoji, shopping at Abeno Harukas
Start Booking Your Trip!
Now that you’ve got all the insights and information you need to get ahead of your planning for a Japan trip, the only step left is to get your fingers busy with booking! Japan has thousands of hidden gems that one would take forever to uncover, but you have to start somewhere — and that’s your very first Japan adventure! What are you waiting for?