How to Travel to Japan ~ Japan. Land of the Rising Sun. Or Nippon to the locals. This stunning island nation will spirit you away to a place where modernity and history come together.
A travel destination truly fit for an emperor. And for the indecisive traveller, the ones who want to see it all and do it all, Japan is paradise. Stay with us as TourRadar’s ultimate travel guide reveals everything you need to see, eat and do to ensure your time in Japan is both inspiring and painless.
Are you ready? Welcome, to Japan. Let’s start with the basics.
Japan is 377,972 square kilometres big, that’s smaller than California but larger than Germany and the country is made up of 6,852 islands, 66 percent of which are covered by trees that provide shade to the nearly 130 million people who call Japan their home. Apart from shade the Japanese also enjoy having the highest life expectancy in the world at 83.7 years.
The country boasts the second lowest homicide rate after Iceland and is listed in the Global Peace Index’s top 10 safest countries to call home. It’s not unusual to see bikes left unlocked and lost wallets returned. However you should always remember to take the same precautions you would at home. And the Japanese speak, well Japanese of course!
We suggest learning some basic phrases since English is not widely spoken throughout the country. Of course, you can always rely on the Japanese for their exceptionally accommodating and notoriously polite demeanors to get you from point a to point b.
After all, the Japanese have 3 different ways of saying ‘I Love You’ & 20 different ways of expressing that they’re sorry. During your visit you’ll be paying for things with the Japanese yen. Keep in mind that it’s fairly uncommon to pay for things using debit or credit cards. You may also be surprised to learn that access to public wifi is rare. Remember to bring an international SIM card or rent a pocket wifi device. Now of course, once you arrive you’ll certainly want to explore as much of the country as possible.
For travel within Japan’s capital, the Tokyo Metro will be your main choice of transportation, welcoming more than 6 million passengers every day. However, travel throughout Japan can be very expensive if you don’t plan ahead. The easiest and cheapest way to get around the country is by using the Japan Rail pass. This pass allows you unlimited access to most major railways around the country for one lump sum. And of course you’ll absolutely want to explore the country because well there’s something for everyone.
Fashion lovers have Tokyo’s Harajuku Bridge, near Meiji Jingu Shrine, where on Sunday afternoons travellers can spot Japanese youth dressed to the nines in impressively complex and extravagant clothing, not to be confused with cosplaying.
Looking for a little live entertainment? Then witness the art of kabuki, a traditional Japanese theatre performance that combines dance, drama and elaborate makeup. You can catch a show in Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. Or maybe you wish to take the stage? In that case, stop by a karaoke bar in Tokyo’s Roppongi neighborhood and enjoy your moment in the spotlight.
Big fan of sports? Then watching a game of baseball at the Tokyo Dome or “Big Egg” as the locals call it, is a can’t miss event. Or maybe you’re the one seeking some adrenaline pumping activities to cross off that bucket list. Don’t worry, Japan has you covered. Forget Aspen and Whistler, the Japanese Alps are the new place to ski. The snow is world renowned and the slopes come with unbeatable views. Check out the hundreds of resorts on the north island of Hokkaido, and the main island of Honshu.
The most popular resort, Niseko, is a popular first choice for foreigners as it’s fairly English friendly. Hiking is one of Japan’s national past times so you absolutely must partake while visiting. You can start with shorter, less intimidating trails in Kamakura, which are only about 3km in length and then work your way up to Japan’s highest mountain at 3776m, Mt. Fuji. This active volcano welcomes most of its climbers from July to October.
The rest of the year the mountain is fairly treacherous for inexperienced climbers due to heavy snowfall. Not a fan of the cold? Then take some well deserved “me time” and rejuvenate at an onsen. Onsens are Japanese hot springs whose steaming waters are naturally warmed by the country’s many volcanos. The temperatures are hotter than a standard jacuzzi and combine indoor and outdoor bathing facilities for a truly unique experience.
Once your body is at ease you must visit Japan’s shrines and temples, each with their own impressive history. While these sacred buildings can be found just about anywhere, Kyoto is the ideal place to see them as this prefecture alone is home to over 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines.
At the top of your list should be Fushimi Inari and Toji Temple. Many temples even allow you to do a temple stay, where you will be immersed into lifestyle of the Buddhist monk. Other uniquely Japanese experiences include a visit to a cat cafe, a day petting deer in Nara, an evening playing games at Club Sega arcade in Tokyo, studying the geisha way of life in Gion and more.
Thanks to the country’s incredible length, there’s never a bad time to visit. You can go skiing during spring if you’re in the north, and then head down south to take a dip in the sea. Spring runs March through May and is often the most popular time to travel to Japan, because of special festivities like Golden Week and the cherry blossom festival.
Locals will also be on vacation throughout April and May so book accommodations and transportation in advance to avoid missing out. Summer runs from June to August but June and July are considered Japan’s rainy season in nearly every region aside from Hokkaido.
You can expect oppressively humid temperatures nearly everywhere you travel so be sure to pack breathable clothing. Fall begins in September when the weather can be both unpredictable or typhoon ridden. October is a decent time to visit because the crowds will taper off and the humidity begins to disappear and the leaves begin to change.
Winter begins in December and is a great time to travel to Japan if you’re a fan of winter activities, New Year celebrations, and small crowds. The Japanese Alps, the northern island of Hokkaido and the Japan Sea coast all get a lot of snow so be sure to pack a winter jacket, sunglasses and the sort. You can expect to get little to no snow if you’re staying in Tokyo where average seasonal temperatures sit around 5 degrees celsius.
No matter the time of year, you’re always less than 500 metres from a great meal. But beware, dining in Japan can be very different from what you’re used to. When you first enter a restaurant you can typically expect to be greeted with “irasshaimase” which means “welcome, please come in.”
In Japan, it’s not common for restaurants to have guests seat themselves so wait to be guided. Most restaurants in Japan offer western-style dining experiences, meaning tables and chairs, but many also have zashiki-style dining settings, which include low tables where guests sit on pillows on the floor, and remove their shoes upon entry.
You will dine with a set of chopsticks and keep in mind that tipping is neither expected nor encouraged. Japan boasts plenty of gourmet restaurants for the connoisseurs among us, where a dinner out can cost more than 20,000 yen.
To put that into perspective, meals at an average restaurant cost between 1,000 to 3000 yen. During lunch you can usually purchase set menus for about 1000 yen and they’ll leave you…and your bank account just as contented. And what should you be sure to try during your visit? Start with a serving of okonomiyaki, panned fried batter and cabbage topped with everything from seafood to cheese and sliced meat.
Next, sample crunchy tempura, made of deep fried pieces of seafood and vegetables that have been cooked in canola and sesame seed oil. You will also have a variety of noodles to choose from, ranging from ramen noodles to soba and udon as well, each varying in flavour and thickness. And of course you couldn’t talk about Japanese cuisine without mentioning sushi, small rolls of vinegar flavored cold cooked rice served with a garnish of raw fish, vegetables, or egg.
When it comes to drinks, a beer in Tokyo will run you around 600 yen. We recommend the classic three: Kirin, Sapporo or Asahi. The Japanese are also expert whiskey distillers so don’t shy away from a sip of the good stuff. And there’s always sake, Japanese rice wine served either hot or cold.
To nurse your impending hangover enjoy a cup of green tea or an iced coffee drink. Once your thirst is quenched and your stomach full you can get back to discovering everything this impressive country has to offer.
A place truly frozen in time yet constantly evolving, Japan will leave you breathless, inspired and astounded.
We hope these tips ensure that your time in the Land of the Rising Sun is tanoshii.