Ultimate guide to visiting Japan

Japan is an island nation located in East Asia that stretches over 3000km from north to south. Experience the best of modern technology infused with ancient Japanese culture and some of the best culinary experiences in the world.


I spent an action-packed two weeks exploring the main island of Honshu that took me from cities to mountains to ancient temples, Japanese castles, the Atomic Bomb Dome and Shirakawa Go, a personal favourite of mine.


Follow my top tips to help make your trip to Japan as good and as memorable as mine was.


Visa: Free 90 day visa on arrival for most!


Know before you go


Population: 126.8 million (2017)

Capital: Tokyo

Language: Japanese, English is becoming increasingly popular and many signs are in English in the larger cities.

Religion: Shinto and Buddhism are Japan's two major religions

Currency: Japanese Yen

Time zone: GMT+9

Drives on: Left

Fun Fact: Japan has one of the lowest crime rates in the world while having the most amount of vending machines in the world!

Interestingly and to my surprise, Japan is a cash-based society. Even with all their crazy technology cash is the preferred and often the only way to way.


Follow in my footsteps


Tokyo - Kyoto - Osaka - Hiroshima - Kanazawa - Shirakawa Go - Matsumoto - Kamikochi -mt. Fuji - Tokyo


When to go


Japan is probably most famous for its beautiful Spring cheery blossoms but notably just as popular for its beautiful Autumn colours, its bathing snow monkeys, world-class skiing and hiking in the summer. The vast length of Japan means while people are skiing at one end of the country others are strolling around in shorts and a tee at the other end. Choosing when to visit Japan really depends on your interests and what you want to see. In a perfect world, you would visit Japan for all four of its seasons!


Spring and autumn and considered to be the most popular times to visit Japan as visitors can not only enjoy the beautiful colours of each season but also moderate temperatures escaping the cold of winter or humidity of the summer.


Spring (April & May)

The months of April and May are Japan’s busiest time for tourists. Travellers from all over the world flock to Japan to witness the magical postcard views of the blooming cherry blossoms. While most of the country will be blooming, starting in the south and working its way up north, the north itself will most likely be still experiencing some snow and cooler temperatures. Due to higher visitors during Spring it is recommended that you plan your trip well in advance, booking your accommodations and travel as it is likely to sell out before the season begins. Spring is a particularly good time to visit the south of Japan.


Summer (June - early September)


The rainy season beings around June in Japan and can vary from a shower or two a day to rain for days on end. Very warm temperatures and humidity can make sightseeing in the central and southern parts of Japan unbearable during the day and visitors are advised to get out early in the mornings or late in the evenings to explore. For more comfortable temperatures travellers are advised to visit the northern parts of Japan.


If you are an avid hiker summer is the best time to conquer some of the vast amounts of hiking trails in Japan. The summit hike on Mt. Fuji officially opens on July 1st and run through until the end of September.


Autumn (mid-September - November)


One could argue that Autumn is the best time of the year to visit Japan, with cooler temperatures and longer days the Autumn is a great time to explore Japan. As a bonus you will be rewarded with beautiful, bright vivid hues of the Autumn leaves making every view that little bit extra special. This is a particularly good time of the year to visit Kyoto and Shirakawa Go. Early Autumn is also good for hiking and exploring the mountains.


Winter (December to March)


Three things come to mind when you think of winter in Japan, bathing snow monkeys, snow-covered houses of Shirakawa Go and amazing skiing and snowboarding. If that’s not enough to tempt you you also have numerous snow-covered temples and castles and the marvellous ice-capped Mt. Fuji. Japan is famously known for its numerous onsens (natural hot springs) so you’ll have plenty of chances to warm your bones.


Seasons greatly vary in Japan and during any season you can escape the cold or the heat depending on where you plan to visit. This makes Japan an all-year destination which caters to everyone's needs and wants.


Accommodation


You will be spoiled for choice when choosing where to lay your head in Japan. Choose from a traditional Japanese inn or homestay, try an unconventional stay in a temple, stay at a budget-friendly hotel or in a 5-star paradise, meet other travellers in one of the many backpacker hostels, experience a capsule hotel or have a late check-in in a ‘Love Hotel’. The world really is your oyster when choosing accommodation in Japan. Read about the many accommodation options below.


Ryokan

A ryokan is a traditional Japanese-style inn. They have been part of the Japanese culture for centuries and have opened their doors to many traders, samurai, businessmen and many others over the years. Much like a traditional western-styled inn, they focus more on maintaining a traditional atmosphere and appearance rather than being kitted out with all the latest mod cons.


When choosing a ryokan to stay in try and look for one in a hot spring or onsen area to get the complete experience. It is most likely that you will sleep on a futon which is a traditional style of Japanese bedding.


Minshuku


Minshuku are family owned and operated Japanese bed and breakfasts. Similar to a ryokan the minshuku offer guests a Japanese style tatami room with a futon. They are a great way to see how local people live and also to meet some local families.

Temple lodgings


Experience the life of a Buddhist monk for a night by staying in one of the many temple stays in Japan. This is an experience that you won’t find in many countries so take advantage during your stay in Japan. You will stay in a tatami styled room with sliding doors and a futon. Generally, your breakfast and dinner will be included in the price. Bookings can be made through booking.com or Air BNB.


Love Hotel


A love hotel offers rooms for as little as one to three hours during the day or for an entire night, checking in starts after 10 pm. Their sole purpose is to offer a room for couples to spend some undisputed time together. Although they may sound seedy they are very common in Japan and offer other useful uses for travellers as they offer late-night check-ins and are convenient for travellers who arrive late to a city. They are also popular amongst Japanese businessmen.


Hotels


You will find a wide range of hotels from western-style to business hotels to pensions (a type of guest house or boarding house). You will find many international chains in major cities and popular tourist destinations. The sky is your limit when it comes to staying in fancy hotels in Japan.


Hostels


You can find high quality and clean backpacker hostels spotted all over Japan. Most will include breakfast in their price and many of them will have cooking facilities. Hostels are a great way to save money while travelling through Japan. Japan has, in my opinion, some of the highest quality hostels that I have ever stayed in.


Capsule Hotel


Another budget-friendly and unique style of accommodation in Japan is to stay at a capsule hotel. They are cheap, clean and spread all over Japan. Sometimes men and women will be divided up and have to sleep on separate floors. In general capsule, hotels aren’t as friendly or as good to meet other travellers as a backpackers is. Also probably not going to be your cup of tea if you’re claustrophobic. They are however extremely clean.


Top Destinations


Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Shirakawa go, Mt Fuji, Japanese Alps


How to get around


Japan is a nation made up of 6,852 islands, of which 430 are inhabited and connected by an extensive and sophisticated transport network. This impressive network allows you to travel Japan comfortably, efficiently and quite easily. Experience the sheer glory and speed of travelling on a bullet train (Shinkansen trains) which is quite simply the best way to explore Japan.


While it may be the best it is certainly not the cheapest way and if you are travelling on a tight budget you will have to decide between time vs money. There are regional trains that will take you on the same routes as the bullet trains, but they normally stop at every station and travel slower. A 2-hour bullet train journey might take 7 hours on a regional train but could be 40 or 50 bucks cheaper.


Cheaper and slower again are buses which may make that same journey take 10 hours. It’s a trade-off you will have to make depending on the amount of time you have in Japan and the budget you are travelling on. Night buses are a good option for budget travellers, not only is it cheaper to travel by bus but you will save on a night of accommodation. Of course, the Shinkansen and regional trains don’t take you everywhere and at times it will be necessary to use an alternative mode of transport.


Japan Rail Pass


The most logical and budget-friendly way to travel in Japan is to take advantage of the JR pass (the Japan Rail Pass). You can buy a rail pass for 1, 2 or 3 weeks of travel in Japan. The JR pass includes all the regional trains, the Shinkansen bullet train, the Narita Express (NEX) and buses and boats that are part of the JR group.


While you can buy the pass when you arrive in Japan at certain train stations it is cheaper to order the pass online and have it sent to you before you arrive. Please be aware that you must use the pass within three months of receiving it.


Budget airlines


Budget airlines like Peach and Jetstar have made domestic flying a more viable option for travellers. There are airports dotted all around the country and airfares normally match the price of a bullet train.


Ferry


For travellers wanting to travel to one or more islands in Japan, the interisland ferry has many routes and options. There is also a limited international ferry service that can take travellers from Japan to China or South Korea or vice versa.


Metro


Within the cities, you will most likely travel by Metro if you are planning on making several stops in any given day you should invest in a day pass to save yourself some money.


Renting a bike


Renting a bike or landing a free bike from the tourist information centre or your accommodation provider for the day can be a great way to explore the quieter areas. Always remember to lock up your bike and if you’re going to take it on the train you have to pay an extra fee.


Renting a car


Renting a car is an expensive way to travel the country, with high fuel costs, lots of toll roads and parking it doesn’t make much sense to rent a car in areas where the public transport is top-notch but in much more remote areas a car can be an excellent way to travel.


Hitching hiking


While hitching hiking is not a common practice amongst the Japanese it is common for backpackers to hitch a ride. The Japanese are normally more than happy to pick up a foreigner to practice their English. As with hitching hiking anywhere in the world, always proceed with caution.

Must-do experiences


Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Shirakawa go, Mt Fuji, Japanese Alps


Try the local food

Washoku is the traditional food of Japan and is based on rice with miso soup and seasonal dishes normally made up of pickled vegetables, vegetables cooked in broth and fish, grilled and raw. Being an island nation the Japanese have always taken advantage of the abundant supply of seafood on their shores. The traditional Japanese diet focused mainly on grains, vegetables. seaweed and fish with very low red meat consumption. While the diet of the Japanese has changed in recent years, taking a lot of influence from the western world you will still find lots of tasty traditional food to fill your bellies.


Washokku became the 22nd Japanese asset to be added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list and in 2011 Japan surpassed France on the Michelin star leader board taking the number one spot and in 2018 Tokyo took the cities top spot further confirming Japan be one of the top places in the world to eat out.


If you are a foodie then you will be in heaven when you arrive in Japan. Having a well-planned list of foods or restaurants that you want to try is always a good idea and I’m sure you’ll find many surprises along the way.


Some popular must-try dishes you will find in Japan include ramen, sushi/sashimi, tempura, miso soup, onigiri, udon, soba, okonomiyaki, takoyaki, katsu curry and gyoza.


If you are vegetarian or vegan you will have to do a lot of pre-planning and research as Japan isn’t the easiest country to find veggie options. Even vegetable dishes may use meat broths which should be watched out for. Learning a little bit of Japanese may go a long way in helping you express your wants. Although being vegan in Japan is difficult it is not impossible so don’t let it put off visiting.


Nightlife


If you are planning on coming to Japan to party you are coming to the right place. The nightlife scene in Tokyo is massive and caters to everyone's needs. Tokyo’s main nightlife districts are Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ginza and Roppongi.


In Shibuya, you find numerous bars, nightclubs, dance lounges, restaurants and love hotels. Shibuya is less seedy than Shinjuku which is Japan’s largest red-light district. Here you will find hundreds of massage parlours, hostess clubs, bars, nightclubs and restaurants. Here you will find the robot restaurant which is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Japan.


For a traditional Japanese experience head to Golden Gai which is made up nearly 300 mini bars and restaurants, most of which only fit in a few customers at most at any one time.


For a classier night out head to Ginza for fine dining, chic bars and nightclubs. With all this extra class comes a hefty bill so if you’re on a budget it's probably best to steer clear. It may also be difficult to gain entry into some establishments as a foreigner especially if you can’t speak Japanese.


Roppongi district has become increasingly popular for foreign visitors and thus you will find lots of tourist-friendly bars, clubs and restaurants.


The Tokyo Pub Crawl runs every Friday and Saturday night and is a great way to meet other travellers.


The Japanese love karaoke! There are many karaoke bars in Tokyo, try to meet some locals and get them to bring you to a karaoke night, it’ll be a fun-filled night you won’t forget.


Of course, it's not all about boozing and there are many activities to keep you busy in the evenings. A walk through Tokyo at night is a great way to experience the city when it is lit up, you won’t even know its night! There are many great restaurants with city views to enjoy a good view or take a night cruise at Tokyo Bay. You could also go and enjoy a baseball game which is one of the most popular sports in Japan.