Everything you need to know about travel to Japan in our brand new Japan travel guide.
From the epic wilderness of Hokkaido down to the tropical beaches of Okinawa, travelling to Japan is an experience like no other.
Whether you’re into food, culture, history or the outdoors Japan has it all. Travel to Japan is on the rise and it’s easy to see why.
Of Japan’s four main islands Honshu gets the vast majority of visitors with travellers in awe of Kyoto’s temples, besotted with Nara’s deer and eating everything in sight in Tokyo.
However the islands of Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku are home to some of the country’s most stunning scenery and are definitely worth a visit.
Whatever you want, you can find it in Japan. Take the chance to visit one of the most awe inspiring destinations on the planet.
Japan Travel Guide
Now that we’ve got your attention, let’s get down to the nitty gritty with our Japan Travel Guide.
- Capital: Tokyo
- Other Main Cities: Osaka, Kyoto, Nagasaki, Fukuoka, Sapporo and Nagoya
- Currency: Japanese Yen (roughly 108 Yen to USD$1)
- Language: Japanese
- Population: 126,168,156
- Area: 364,485 sq km
- Electricity Voltage: 100 volts
- Electricity Sockets: Type A and B
How To Get To Japan
This is the most common way to travel to Japan. As a result the country is extremely well connected to the outside world.
The majority of International Flights will take you to Tokyo’s Narita or Haneda Airport’s or Osaka International Airport.
If your final destination is neither of these then you will probably need to take an internal flight. Most major airlines and national carriers will have direct flights to Tokyo.
If you’re flying from somewhere in Asia there is a good change you’ll be able to fly to a number of other Japanese cities directly.
Google flights is an excellent search engine for cheap flights, but do remember to check the airlines official web pages to see what other options are available.
There are reasonably regular services from both China and Korea however journey times are long and prices can sometimes be more than a plane ticket. However it is certainly one of the more unique ways to travel to Japan.
Visa Requirements For Japan
Visa requirements for Japan are very straightforward. Most citizens of developed nations are visa free and can stay for 15, 30 or 90 days depending on their nationality.
If you not from a visa free nation you will need to get a visa. For details you will need to contact your local Japanese embassy or consult the website of your countries foreign office.
For information about which countries are granted visa free access click here. At present E-visas are not an option for people travelling to Japan.
5 Interesting Facts About Japan
- Japan is made up of 6,852 islands.
- The Meiji restoration took Japan from a backwards, feudal society to one of the world’s most powerful nations in about 30 years. In 1863 Commander Perry came from the USA to force Japan to come out of 250 years of self imposed exile. Seeing that the technology of the Americans was far more advanced than their own, the Japanese realised the only way to avoid being dominated was to embrace these technological advances and become a great power themselves.
- When you bow in Japan you back, neck and head should form a straight line, there should not be any curvature.
- Despite having one of the most complex written languages anywhere on the planet, Japan had a 99% literacy rate.
- Apparently the average train delay in 2016 was 26 seconds, including delays for natural disasters. Punctual or what.
Best Time To Travel To Japan
This really depends on where in Japan you are headed. Across the country sakura (cherry blossom) season is one of the most popular times to visit, but it happens at different times across the country due the differences in climate across the country.
Another less popular, but no less stunning time to visit is autumn as the leaves begin to change colour.
Whilst this doesn’t quite bring in the crowds like sakura season does, the sheer array of colours on display is absolutely stunning, particularly on Japan’s most northerly island, Hokkaido.
Summer brings sweltering temperatures and typhoons in the south. However Japan is extremely well prepared for such events. As such is still possible to travel to Japan during this of year.
Winter brings some of the world’s best skiing on Hokkaido as snow makes some roads and hiking trails impassable. However this is also the best time to see the famous ice flows close to the Shiretoko National Park.
Hokkaido avoids not only Japan’s searing summer heat, it also avoids the typhoons that batter the countries summer islands during the summer months.
Sakura season usually begins in late April/early with the island being the first place in Japan to see the spectacular autumn colours in mid-September. Whilst Autumn days are crisp and clear they are usually dry.
Winter brings cold weather and snow from Siberia. With some of the best ski fields in the country, if winter sports are your thing then this is one of the best places to visit in Japan.
Honshu has the widest variety of weather amongst Japans islands. Whilst winters in the south of the island are reasonably mild (4-5 celsius), Northern Honshu and the Japan Alps are blasted with snow creating some awesome skiing areas.
June and early July brings heavy rains and a fair few typhoons. Whilst the southern portion of the island sizzles at around 35 celsius the north remains decidedly cooler.
Spring and Autumn are the most pleasant months to visit. Sakura season usually begins in the south at the beginning of April working it’s way up to higher altitude destinations, like Takayama at the end of the month.
The Autumn colours work their way down from the mountains in October reaching the southern cities of Hiroshima and Kyoto in November.
Kyushu And Shikoku
The two rarely visited islands have similar weather to Southern Honshu, so expect sakura season in early April before it heads north. You can expect Autumn colours to be coming through from the north in November.
Winters are generally mild and all four seasons offer great weather however do be aware that June and July can be quite wet, with the additional potential of typhoons stopping by in the summer. However as Summer ends, cool crisp temperatures of Autumn and Winter replace the typhoons.
Subtropical temperatures mean these islands rarely drop below 20 celsius. Whilst the winter is not cold, the water certainly is, with very few people venturing out into the waves.
Sakura season comes into town in March, however May and June see tropical rains before breaking for summer. August and September is peak typhoon season.
Okinawa offers some of Japan’s best dive sites. These are best checked out during the summer months.
READ MORE: Don’t miss our complete guide to all the best things to do in Okinawa.
Here’s an idea for a Japan travel itinerary to help you get started on planning your vacation.
Tokyo – 3 days – 1 week: There is a lot to see and do in Tokyo itself, and with easy trips to Kamakura, Nikko, Fuji and Hakone, you could end up spending more time in Tokyo than you thought.
Kyoto – 3-4 days: Kyoto’s temples are sunning and are most definitely deserving of their reputation. It’s also under an hour from Nara and Osaka meaning day trips are elsewhere are easy.
Hiroshima – 2 days: Famous for the wrong reasons, Hiroshima has risen from the ashes of 1945 to become one of Japan’s most interesting cities. A day trip to the nearby island of Miyjima is well worth it.
Japan Alps – 3-5 days: Home to some of Honshu’s most stunning scenery, this area filled with ryokans, onsens, hiking trails and the countries famous snow monkeys.
Shiretoko and Akan National Parks – 5 days: You could easily spend longer in these two National Parks that are 2-3 hours drive from each other. Expect awesome scenery, fantastic hiking and excellent food.
Daisetsuzan National Park – 2-3 days: This national park is home to onsens and some excellent hiking.
Sapporo 2-3 days: Home to the incredible snow and ice festival in January/February.
Checkout this article on how to plan the perfect Hokkaido itinerary.
Kagoshima – 3 days: This area is mainly famous for it’s onsens, samurai houses and Sakurajima. It’s also close to numerous hiking trails on the Satsuma peninsula, the most famous being Kaimon Dake.
Takachiho – 2 days: Hiking and gorges are the name of the game in the town in Central Kyushu.
Nagasaki – 2 days: A city with a lot going on, like Hiroshima it has risen from the ashes of 1945. If you have a car, mouth Unzen is an easy day trip.
Iiya Valley – 2 days: On of the most interesting places to visit in Japan. You really need a car to explore it to the max!
Matsuyama – 1 day: Home to one of Japan’s most stunning castles.
Takamatsu – 2 days: As well a being a funky little city in it’s own right this is also one of the gateways to Japan’s art islands like Naoshima and Teshima.
Budget for Travelling in Japan
Japan has an unfair reputation for being incredibly expensive and whilst you easily empty your bank account, it is possible to travel in Japan for less money than you think.
To make your money go further here are a few tips:
- Purchase the rail pass you need. There are a huge number of different types of rail passes available in Japan. With a bit of research it is possible to save yourself a small fortune by only buying the pass you need.
- Take advantage of low cost internal flights (more about that in the Travelling in Japan section).
- Utilise convenience stores for finding cheap and delicious eats.
- Japan has an extensive and reliable night bus service. Use it to save on travel and hotel fees.
- Limit your alcohol intake, it’s surprisingly expensive.
- Check the subway passes available in the city your staying in.
- Compare the prices of hotels on different search engines, there is a difference. Rakuten (for onsen hotels and ryokans) and hotels.com generally offer the most competitive prices. Certainly not an exact science, but it does pay to check a number of hotel websites as the prices can vary wildly.
Check out this Japan budgeting guide I wrote, giving you a bunch of extra tips on making your money go further.
$50-60 Single Traveller, $80-110 Couple Travellers.
Hostels are the best options for single budget travellers. However if travelling as couple it’s often cheaper to get a private room.
There are plenty of awesome free things to do all over Japan. You will need to think outside the box and do your research but it is very possible to travel in Japan on a budget like this.
$60-100 Single Traveller, $120-180 Couple Travellers.
Whilst you may not get much of an upgrade on the accommodation front, this will put you in the position to possibly renting a car to further explore.
In addition you may be able to spend more time eating in some funky izakayas and sushi restaurants.
$100+ Single Traveller, $200+ Couple Travellers.
Luxury hotels and fancy restaurants are the order of the day here. If money is no object then travelling in Japan can extremely luxurious!
Top 5 Places In Japan
In no particular order, here are my top 5 places in Japan! I’ve tried to include things outside the Hiroshima to Tokyo route. As travel to Japan increases it is likely that Hokkaido, Kyushu, Shikoku and the islands of Okinawa will receive more visitors.
Ilya Valley – Shikoku: Driving here is not for the faint hearted, with narrow roads chiseled into the mountainside you will get some spectacular views.
Miyajima – Honshu: A stone’s throw from Hiroshima, this island offers amazing temples, hungry dear and stunning views over the Seto Inland Sea.
Shiretoko National Park – Shiretoko: At times it feels like the end of the world here. The peninsula is adorned with snow capped peaks and forests are home to wild bears. Expect to eat some of the freshest sashimi in Japan followed up by relaxing in free hot springs dotted along the coastline.
Kyoto – Honshu: Undeniably one of the most beautiful cities in Japan, Kyoto really is a place like no other.
Yufuin – Kyushu: Come and relax in one of Japan’s most spectacular onsen towns.
Top 5 Experiences in Japan
Eating: As anyone who has been to Japan will testify, Japanese cuisine is phenomenal. Whether you’re stuffing your face with conveyor belt sushi, sampling everything you can at an izakaya or sampling some Kobe beef, Japan is the place to make your culinary dreams come true.
Hiking: Japan is probably one of the world’s most stunning countries. The country is full of amazing hikes giving you breathtaking views.
Visiting an Onsen: If you haven’t visited an onsen then you haven’t really been to Japan. The best place to experience just how awesome an onsen is? An onsen hotel in the middle of nowhere. If this is not an option then most cities will have onsens that you can visit for the day.
Take a Road Trip: Hiring a car is the best way to see Japan. If you’re lucky enough to visit Hokkaido, Kyushu or Shikoku then a car is a must. A road trip through Japan really is the experience of a lifetime.
Japanese Culture: As mind-blowing as Japan is, it is the uniqueness of it’s culture that regularly leaves people spell bound. There truly is nowhere else like Japan
Transport in Japan
Travelling in Japan is both easy and convenient. The public transport network is wide ranging and extremely reliable. Additionally hiring a car is both easy and safe.
Japan has an excellent internal air travel network. There are two passes run by JAL and ANA that will allow you to take internal flights for around $100. The price can sometimes be slightly higher or lower depending on where you’re flying from and to.
This makes it an excellent option for travelling in Japan. If you plan this effectively with other transport options available it has the potential to make your visit to Japan even cheaper.
Some may be surprised by this suggestion, but it is an excellent option for travelling in Japan. The best part is that it is not as difficult as you may imagine. Check out this article I wrote on how to rent a car in Japan.
Driving in Japan is safe and easy. For Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku, a car is the best way to see most of each island’s most beautiful sights.
There are a number of bus companies operating in Japan, the biggest being Willer Bus Service. Night buses are excellent budget options for intercity travel.
Combining overnight bus travel with a JR pass can save you a fortune as the difference in price between regional, 1 week national and 2 week national passes are huge. Therefore it really pays to do your research and work out exactly what you need.
If you are on a budget then this is probably the most cost effective way to get around. For example a night bus from Kyoto to Tokyo is half the price of the Shinkansen.
Often the only way to access some of Japans smaller islands, particularly in the Seto Inland Sea. Japan is home to an excellent maritime transport network. Generally ferries are affordable and in some cases they are covered by a JR pass (the ferry to Miyajima being the most well-known example).
Naturally the costs increase if you are taking a car or if you are taking a long distance ferry.
This is where things can get complicated. Japan’s train network is simply incredible, in truth it is the envy of pretty much every country on the planet. It can take you from the North of Hokkaido to the South of Kyushu.
It can be confusing as, like with a lot of things in Japan, there are a myriad of different options available to you. This is where it pays to plan your trip effectively. The excellent website japanguide.com has a superb article breaking down EVERY rail pass available in Japan at present.
This includes JR (Japan Rail) passes as well as private rail passes such as the Odakyu pass taking you down to Kamakura from Tokyo.
Most travellers will simply plump for a JR nationwide pass which is 29,110 yen for 1 week and 46,390 for 2 weeks. However you could be paying much more than you need to.
How to Maximise a JR Pass
Download Hyperdia – This amazing app, that is free to use for 3 months (after that you will need to pay) allows to research train times and more importantly prices.
You can work out which JR pass is the best financial option. Do note that the seat fare (sometimes two thirds of the cost) is not optional, you will need to pay it.
You don’t need a rail pass for your entire time. Some people may be visiting Japan for 2 weeks and will buy a 2 week nationwide JR pass.
You are not going to be using the train every day and it’s likely you will paying more than you need to.
Activate your JR pass at the right time. To activate you pass you will need to go to the station and inform them of when you want to activate it. Make sure you activate it when you really need it so you can get the most out of it.
Check out the regional passes. There are numerous regional passes available that are much cheaper, but they cover a smaller area and don’t last as long.
However they can be a fantastic option. Combing such passes with night bus services can save you plenty of pennies.
You cannot use JR nationwide passes on the fastest trains in Japan the Nozomi and Mizuho however you can take these trains when using the regional passes.
To give you an idea of how much a bit of research can save you: When I travelled to Japan I purchased a Yamaguchi wide are pass for 13,500 yen this covered my travel from Hiroshima to Kyoto.
From Kyoto I then took a night bus to Tokyo for 6,500 yen. At 20,000 yen this was much cheaper than a 1-week JR pass. Additionally this trip took me 11 days, from when I arrived in Hiroshima to when I arrived in Tokyo.
If I had gone with the JR pass option I would have had to purchase a 2-week JR pass, which costs just under 50,000 yen. In this case a bit of research and planning saved me 30,000yen, roughly $275.
Accommodation in Japan
Whilst hostels exist in Japan they are not as cheap South East Asia. There is a reasonably good hostel network throughout Japan, but hostels are not as common or widespread as in other popular travel destinations.
If travelling in Japan as a couple or pair, a hotel room is often cheaper than 2 beds in a dorm. It’s always worth comparing, hostels are not always the cheapest option when there’s more than one of you.
It is also worth shopping around and checking out a number of different hotel search engines as the prices do differ.
In Hokkaido we found that hotels.com offered the best options, whereas in Kyushu and Shikoku it was more evenly split between Rakuten, hotels.com and booking.com. Honshu is more of an even game especially between Hiroshima and Tokyo. However the further you get away from the popular places the more these differences will become more apparent.
Japan has a huge range of accommodation options. The most obvious difference is whether it’s a Japanese or western style room.
In Japanese style rooms you will be sleeping on tatami mats on the floor, which are actually incredibly comfortable. This options is far more common outside of popular tourist destinations. Western style rooms have regular beds.
Many single rooms in hostels, guesthouses or hotels will have bunk beds to fit more people. This will usually be stated when booking. Not always the most romantic option but it does help you get more bang for your buck.
Traditional Japanese Ryokans offer luxurious stays in often gorgeous accommodation and locations. However they can sometimes be very expensive. It’s not uncommon for Ryokans to have an onsen.
Another good option in recent years is AirBnB, and there’s more and more amazing places popping up to stay for very affordable prices every day.
Click here to get $35 off your first AirBnB stay when you register.
Last, but by no means least; Onsen Hotels. In short these are hotels that have an onsen attached. They cover a wide variety of budgets but often they are not the cheapest options available. However the luxury of being able to have an onsen whenever you want is well worth it.
Rules for using the onsens will be often clearly displayed, but these are the basics:
- You must be completely naked – no bathing suits.
- Do not put your towel into the onset water. Most people wrap it around their head.
- Shower before you enter the onsen, taking care to splash others with your shower water.
Parking in Japan
If you are driving check if you accommodation has parking. It won’t be a problem in rural areas however in bigger cities parking can be a nightmare.
Hotel chains such as Mystays (an excellent budget hotel chain) offer 24 hour parking for 1000 yen, which is extremely good value. Rooms at these sorts of hotels are usually 6000 yen a night.
Whilst this might put you slightly over your budget it may work out cheaper than staying outside of the city and driving in to park or taking public transport. As with any trip to Japan, you do need to do your research.
Language Issues in Japan
Do not expect people to speak English.
English is not widely spoken and is not particularly necessary in the tourism industry.
The countries internal tourist market is thriving and visitors from Mainland China, South Korea and Taiwan are on the rise.
In some hostels and hotels English is spoken, but it’s certainly not common. I have rented cars 3 times in Japan and each time a staff member has been able to communicate with me in English.
Always remember to slow down your speech, use basic words and phrases. Also try and avoid asking abstract questions. Ask questions that have a fixed or yes/no answer as these are much easier to understand.
Whilst translation apps are useful, they suffer from the same issues as Mandarin Chinese, the translations are very hit and miss and as a result they may not always be reliable.
Even some basic translations will have local in Japanese in hysterics, as I found out when trying to translate items on a menu.
Many signs are in both Japanese and English and announcements at subway and train stations are often in both languages. People in Japan are extremely polite and helpful. As a result they are often very willing to help a stranded tourist.
Expect plenty of gestures, pointing and the sense of adventure when there is no common language.
Eating in Japan
Japanese cuisine is justifiably one of the worlds popular. It focuses heavily on high quality ingredients and as a result portion sizes are smaller than you may expect.
Although fried dishes are common in Japanese cuisine, Japan has the lowest rate of childhood and adult obesity in the amongst the OECD nations.
This is down to a mixture of smaller portions and a culture that promotes restraint and health.
Yakiniku: Japanese BBQ. These restaurants can be found all over Japan, and it is very rare that they are anything other than delicious. Many offer time based all you can eat/drink deals. Look out for the characters 放题 as they usually don’t advertise this in any language other than Japanese.
Katsu Curry: Fried chicken or pork cutlets smothered in Japanese curry. Heaven on a plate.
Kushikatsu: All manner of meat and veg skewered and deep fried.
Sushi and Sashimi: This can go from the cheap to the eye wateringly expensive. Conveyor belt sushi restaurants offer the cheapest prices. Be brave and try delicacies like sea urchin, horse or chicken sashimi.
Sukiyaki: Meat and vegetables cooked in a hot pot with a small amount of water and soy sauce.
Ramen: The nations most popular noodle dish, often an excellent budget option.
Gyoza: Pan fried dumplings, often filled with pork.
There is certainly much more available than this, but hopefully this gives you a quick overview.
Convenience Stores: For budget eating options convenience stores like lawsons, family mart and 7-11 are often an excellent option for a cheap and hearty meal!
No mention on eating in Japan would be complete without a mentioning Japan’s most famous of eating places; the Izakaya (居酒屋).
An izakaya is Japanese pub that is generally a places where friends, colleagues and family members will go to eat, drink and chat.
The huge menu’s consist of small plates that are shared amongst the group. Expect to find sashimi, yakitori, cold dishes, salads, fried dishes and deserts.
Some of the best meals I’ve eaten in Japan were in tiny little isakayas that could seat no more than 10 people.
Is Japan Safe?
Japan is one of the safest countries in the world for both men and a women. Petty theft and violent crime is extremely rare, however you should still be sensible and follow usual travel precautions.
Stories of people leaving wallets, passports and bags on trains and being reunited with them are the norm.
In a busy cafe in Shibuya, a patron a couple of tables over went to the bathroom, leaving his phone, wallet, keys and laptop on the table. I think that tells you everything you need to know.
Japan Packing List
It really depends on when you travel to Japan. Bringing wet weather gear is always advisable, however if you’re heading into the mountains it’s worth bringing extra warm clothes, even in summer.
- Trousers x3 (thin trousers that dry quickly are best)
- Shorts x2 (not needed in winter)
- Flip flops (not needed in winter)
- Hiking shoes
- Wet weather jacket
- T-shirt x5
- Fleece/thick jumper x2
- Chopsticks (to avoid using disposable ones)
- Power pack
- Unlocked phone for a Japanese sim card
- International Drivers Permit if you want to drive a car in Japan
Japan Travel Tips
Research Cultural Norms and Behaviour: Japan is a country with a very strong national identity and behaviour. Breaking these behavioural norms is most definitely frowned upon however it is very unlikely people will say anything. It is these behaviours and cultural norms that help make Japan what it is. Here are a few basic ones:
- Do not talk loudly or answer your phone on the subway, bus or train.
- Do not eat on the above.
- Walking and eating is sometimes frowned upon.
- Stand on the left hand side of an escalator.
- Follow the rules in an onsen.
- Do not litter – Japan is immaculately clean.
If you’re not sure if something is ok, just ask. Many Japanese people know that foreigners are unlikely to be aware of Japanese norms and expectations and will be happy to help you.
Eat, Eat, Eat: Japanese food tastes so much better in Japan. Take the opportunity to try things that you are very unlikely to find in your home country.
International Drivers Permit: If you plan on renting a car in Japan you MUST have this document. Without it not only will you be unable to rent a car, you will not be given a refund if you have already paid.
Take your own chopsticks: Single use chopsticks are the norm in Japan. Take you own and do a little bit for the planet.
Do your research: I know I’ve stressed it a lot, but a bit of planning and research does make a real difference, especially for utilising public transport. For rail passes japanguide.com is absolutely the best place to start. Getting a handle on this will leave you in the best pace to get the most out of your trip.
Show respect and places of worship: All temples and shrines will have rules and guidelines clearly displayed in English or with pictures, yet some people are still not able to understand them. Don’t be one of those travellers that give everyone else a bad name.
Remove your shoes: This is common everywhere in Japan. In some cases you may need to remove them before entering the lobby of a hotel. However it is more common that you are expected to leave your shoes in the coves next to the door of your hotel room. This is especially common in more traditional Japanese hotels.
Embrace Japanese toilets: The gadgets available in Japanese bathrooms are the stuff of legend. Soft music can be played so no-one can hear you doing you business, seats can be warmed on cold winter mornings and the variety of spray options will leave you feeling as clean as a whistle.
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