Planning your first trip to Japan involves lots of practical things like booking accommodation, sorting an itinerary and organising transport. But there are also lots of useful things about stuff like toilets, nudity and hairdryers that you need to know before you go too.
Just being in Japan is so, so different to anywhere else so it’s worth putting the time in with your planning to get the most of of your trip. Japan is a brilliant country that’s hard to do justice to. Bonkers, but brilliant. I’m willing to bore people with how much I love Japan at any opportunity (soz about that).
So here’s a huge brain dump of everything we tell people when they ask us about planning their first trip to Japan…
How long to go to Japan for: you need at least 2 weeks, so get that annual leave booked in now
Any less than two weeks in Japan and you’ll probably be struggling to see enough of it, given how long the flight is and how jet-lagged you might be for the first day or so.
The first time we went, we also spent quite a lot of time being baffled (in a pleasant way), which does eat up time too.
The best time to go to Japan: January, May or November
- Spring in Japan is very popular because the cherry blossom is a big deal and the weather is mostly beautiful. But it can be busier and more expensive due to this, coupled with the fact it’s Golden Week in Japan (when everyone gets time off work). So do weigh up how much cherry blossom and flawless Instagram shots matter to you.
- Our favourite trip so far has been in January of all things, so don’t be afraid of the winter months. Depending on where you want to go, East and South of the Japan Alps, it can be beautifully crisp but still sunny. And you’ll miss out on all the sweaty humidity in cities.
- Our friends who live in Tokyo say autumn is also lovely but we’ve not done that ourselves… yet.
- Basically, avoid summer because HUMIDITY.
Where to stay: accommodation in Japan
The world of Japanese hotels
- In our experience, Western-style hotels in Japan are often either not great or really expensive. Obviously I’m writing from a UK perspective on what’s expensive: we’re lucky here to be able to book Premier Inns and the like for <£80 a night for a clean, decent room in most UK cities (not including stupid London). This kind of budget-but-nice hotel isn’t really a thing in Japan.
- Many affordable hotels in Japan are ‘business hotels’. Unsurprisingly, they’re for businesspeople travelling within Japan. Businesspeople who are used to a tiny smoke-stained room consisting of a small double bed and a bit of carpet around it that will barely fit your suitcase.
- You can get luxury Western hotels of course, but for us Japan isn’t a place to splash out on hotels. We just need somewhere to sleep and get ready because we want to be out exploring (and eating) all the time.
- Most hotels offer non-smoking rooms but in our experience, they often still smell of smoke. Do your research on TripAdvisor.
- Many hotels in Japan can forward your bags to another hotel for a small fee. It’s an overnight service but they will also hold them for you.
- The best hotels we’ve personally stayed in personally and can recommend are: the Centurion Hotel Grand Kobe Station (Kobe) and Hotel Mets Kōenji (Tokyo).
Ryokans – traditional Japanese inns
- Ryokans aren’t like Western hotels. This is where you can have a real luxurious and traditional experience.
- You’ll be in an ancient world of tatami matting (the woven mats), possibly sleeping on futons, visiting an onsen (hot spring) and being served some exceptional food in your room, complete with all the ceremony around it.
- HOWEVER, be careful with bathrooms when booking. Not all ryokans have en suites, even the super luxury ones. So if you’re anything like us and this is a deal-breaker, make sure you check.
- The same goes for your onsen (hot spring) – make sure you can book a private session in one if you don’t want to be naked in front of other people (also see the section on Japanese etiquette further down this page).
- I feel like I’m not selling ryokans very well here! But I promise you’ll enjoy a ryokan stay if you get it right for you. Maybe you’re someone who’d be happy running round naked all the time and doesn’t flinch at sharing a toilet. But for me, getting things like that sorted in advance means I know I’ll enjoy the experience.
- Everything slows down the moment you step inside a ryokan – it’s all incredibly hushed, relaxing and calm. If you’re on a hectic trip cramming lots in, it will be a welcome respite. For more detail, RoughGuides have a guide to your first stay in a ryokan.
There are of course other types of accommodation in Japan but these are the ones we find most useful.
What to eat and drink in Japan: oh, just everything
Oh my god, the food is 100% the best bit of Japan. It has to be the best cuisine in the world. And you can eat so cheap for the quality. You are going to come home fat. So, so fat. All that rubbish about Japanese food being healthy is a pack of lies.
Drinks are also great too. You HAVE to try umeshu (plum wine). It’s delicious. There’s also an incredible craft beer scene, especially in Tokyo.
Here are some of my personal favourite Japanese foods. If you already love Japanese food, most won’t be new to you but I can assure you that they all taste 10 x better in Japan itself.
- Takoyaki – octopus formed into balls and deep fried because you did something great in a past life.
- Okonomiyaki – the best Japanese dish IMO: savoury pancake with all kinds of amazing fattening things on (the best is in Naoshima but don’t tell anyone).
- Gyoza – dumplings from heaven.
- Ramen – noodle broth for your hangovers from all the craft beer you’ll be consuming. The best is in Asagaya, off the beaten track in Tokyo.
- Everything and anything from Japanese bakeries – trust me, Japan takes pastries/buns/cakes to another level.
- Green tea ice cream – vital even during a winter trip to Japan.
- Bento boxes – not a food per se but you have to go to a department store and buy a bento box for lunch on at least one of your days. Coming back to the UK and the prospect of Sainsbury’s meal deals after that is enough to make you cry.
- A packet of dried squid (specifically from a Family Mart convenience store, if you want a pro tip). Alright, this is a niche choice but if you’re going to Japan, please buy me some because I miss it so much I could cry.
Note: no mention of sushi in this list. As much as I love it, it’s not the absolute best of all the Japanese foods IMO.
How to get around Japan: trains and the Japan RailPass
There’s so much info out there already about transport in Japan so I won’t regurgitate it all. Basically, unless you’re going very long distances, you’ll be doing trains for most of your travel within Japan. It’s all very efficient and of course the shinkansen (bullet train) is incredible and you must go on one.
The Lonely Planet guide to getting around by train will help you sort out what you need to do, but so will:
- Hyperdia – is for routes and train times within Japan
- The Man in Seat 61 – if you’re not already a fan of this train website, what have you been doing with your life?
The Japan RailPass is available in different variations and if you’re in Tokyo for a big chunk of your time, you may be better off getting one of the shorter passes. In major cities like Tokyo, they tend to have a number of different types of train cards (like Oyster cards), which can work out cheaper for you. However, if you’re travelling to Kyoto and back, it is worth getting the Japan RailPass even just for that journey. That’s how good value it is.
Side note: if you really enjoy trains (and if you don’t, you will in Japan), there are loads of train-based geeky things to do in Japan. We even have a blog post about them here. Enjoy.
Things you need to know before going to Japan
Okay, here’s the really useful bit…
- YOUR HAIRDRYER AND STRAIGHTENERS/TONGS/STYLERS MIGHT NOT WORK. Stop press. The voltage in Japan is different to the UK at only 100v instead of 240v. You’ll need to source hair gear that works. I bought a Babyliss travel hairdryer and new GHD stylers in a mad panic before I went the first time, having found this crucial information out far too close to the wire.
- Everyone in Japan is incredibly polite and helpful. You’ll have no doubt heard this already. But it really is other-level helpfulness. They will do everything they can to help you, and then some more.
- Don’t worry about getting (drunkenly) stuck anywhere too much. Trains run late and there’s always a way to get back to your hotel. Someone can always help you. No surly Italian bus drivers slamming doors in your face here. It’s all going to be okay.
- Not that many people speak much English, even in big cities. But they will always try to help you and you can usually get by. If you have allergies/dietary requirements, get a translation and get it written down to carry with you.
- The rumours are true about Japanese toilets. They are absolutely craycray. I won’t spoil it for you by explaining. Seeing is believing. Do note though that these fancy machines aren’t everywhere. If you’re venturing somewhere rural, you might be faced with a squat toilet (aka a hole). Do your research if you want to avoid this terrifying situation.
- Everything in Japan is calm. You can be in a huge crowd of people and neon lights but there is always an air of calm. Until you’re at the sumo. Then it all goes out the window. Which leads me onto…
- Go and watch the sumo if you’re there during the sumo season. Even if it doesn’t appeal to you (it didn’t to me). It’s brilliant – I have a post on how to watch sumo and what to expect.
- Japan is so safe. But don’t be an idiot, obviously.
- It is all so clean. You won’t be able to comprehend how clean.
- Japan is a cash-based society. They love carrying wads of cash round, like you would if you lived somewhere ridiculously so safe. Cards aren’t the done thing and that contactless life hasn’t caught on yet.
- Convenience stores are everywhere and very er, convenient. You can only get cash out at 7-11s or post offices.
- Take a business card for your hotel/inn or save it on Google Maps on your phone for taxi purposes. I’d say that this goes for everywhere you go in the world, just in case, but it’s especially important in Japan because of the general lack of English speaking. And Japanese addresses are incomprehensible at the best of times (even to Japanese people, as we discovered on our last trip…).
- Say no to all the environment-killing packaging. If you’re not careful, shop assistants will gift wrap whatever you’re buying, put it in a bag, gift wrap the bag and then gift wrap you and put you in the bag too. They are relentless.
- Vending machines will give you anything you want. Batteries, coffee, underwear, noodles: all the essentials.
- Go into a pachinko parlour. You don’t have to actually gamble or attempt to. It’s eye-opening enough to just wander through.
- Arcade games are an experience in Japan. We always seek out MarioKart!
- If you’re trying to find somewhere to eat, drink, shop and you can’t see it where it should be, don’t forget to look up and maybe even down. In cities, and even towns, there are often multiple levels to buildings and everything is very densely packed. You think you’re overwhelmed with it all and then you realise there’s also an entire underground mall below you too… I struggle to get my head around it. Basically, there’s a lot of stuff and a lot of stuff within the stuff. And it’s all excellent.
- There’s a lot of etiquette you need to know too, but that needs a whole new section…
What Japanese etiquette you need to know
- Bowing will be your new hobby. The lower the bow, the greater the respect. Little bows are fine for most stuff but you do have to stop at some point or you just end up in a vicious cycle.
- You are going to spend a lot of time taking your shoes on and off. Good luck if you’re wearing complicated lace-up boots. You can’t step on tatami mats (the woven mats in most buildings) while wearing shoes/slippers. You also can’t keep your shoes on in restaurants or general indoor areas. Keep an eye out for piles of shoes and be prepared to whip yours off.
- Learn to use chopsticks before you go, if you can’t already. You will struggle for Western cutlery.
- Onsens (hot springs) are a must-do when you’re in Japan but unless you’re happy stripping off in public, book a private one. There’s loads of onsen etiquette, but I’ll leave that to the myriad blog posts and articles already out there to explain.
- Don’t blow your nose in public. I hate this because I’d rather blow it and be done with it, but sniffing is seen as more polite so you should only have a good honk when you’re in the loo.
- You don’t need to tip. It can be seen as offensive. Just do lots of thank yous if you’re v happy with the service (arigatou gozaimasu)
- When you’re receiving change in a shop, take it with both hands. When giving money, place it in their little tray. This will all make sense when you’re there.
- The little surgical masks lots of people wear in Japan are not to stop them breathing in fumes or germs. They’re because they have a cold and don’t want to pass it on to other people. This is Japan all over.
- Don’t walk around eating. Food is taken too seriously for that shit!
Where to actually go in Japan: places you can’t miss
I’ve left this till halfway down because where do I start?!
Obviously the capital city of Tokyo will probably be your first thought. Tokyo is unreal and has to be seen to be believed so you’ll need at least 4 days there in my view. We’re lucky enough to have friends who live there, so we really get off the beaten track in Tokyo – something you must try to do too, because although all the tourist spots are brilliant, it’s the little low-rise winding roads crammed with fascinating bars and restaurants that are the real gems of the city. To be honest, you could spend your entire two-week trip just in Tokyo and not even scratch the surface. Mount Fuji and other day trips are really easy from Tokyo too.
The ancient capital Kyoto is the other obvious must-see city. It’s where the famous bamboo forest is, if you fancy spending hours trying to get that perfect photo with no people in (good luck with that: I failed miserably!). We really enjoyed the cute Romantic Train there too, which you can read about in our post about train-based activities in Japan. Kyoto needs almost as many days as Tokyo does to do it justice, and again you will leave feeling like you’ve hardly got into it. Amanohashidate is not too far from Kyoto on the amusingly named Kitakinki Tango Railway, and is another big draw for its scenic views.
Hiroshima, the site of the atomic bomb, and Miyajima, the famous shrine just off its coast, is another thing many people won’t want to miss on their first trip to Japan. However, it does take you quite far away from anywhere else that you may want to see, so this is worth bearing in mind.
Aside from these ‘big 3’, there is so much else to see. Just a few we’ve loved are:
- Nara – who wouldn’t want to meet the tame deer of Nara for a selfie – oh and the absolutely ginormous Buddha? With Nara, you also get to see some Japanese countryside – something you should definitely try to do as an antidote to all the big cities.
- Osaka – the gritty, industrial-chic city of Osaka has its own very distinct accent and vibe. V hip and full of bars.
- Kobe – if you like flowers, you’ll love Kobe: the flower city. It’s on the coast and is also famous for its beef. It has a real foodie scene.
- Kanazawa – this green city has to be our favourite we’ve been to so far. It’s famous for its gardens, which are the best we’ve ever seen and have more water features than you can shake a stick at. Kanazawa is also smaller and feels fresher than other cities. It has the best seafood too, as well incredible modern art and temples. GO THERE.
- A castle: take your pick – a trip to Japan would be incomplete without seeing one of its many castles. Our two favourites are: the white fairytale-style Himeji castle and Matsumoto castle (the latter is pictured below).
- Naoshima – the little art island of Naoshima is magical and (at the risk of sounding pretentious) it really made us think about what art actually is. It’s also great for seeing a little piece of rural Japan, with life continuing there as it has for years. You can combine it with a stop off in Takamatsu for the best udon noodles in Japan.
There’s so much else to see, I can’t possibly cover it all here. I recommend getting a copy of the Lonely Planet guide to Japan and sitting down with a
big cup of tea massive gin & tonic. Have a browse through and pick where appeals most to you. You’ll never be disappointed because the joy of Japan is simply being immersed in it, wherever you are.
Planning an itinerary for your first trip to Japan
Your itinerary will of course depend on which international airport you fly into: one of the Tokyo ones or Kansai (in Osaka Bay) or another.
I’d recommend not trying to cram too much in in terms of staying in different cities. Instead, make it less stressful and reduce your faffing about by picking two or three (at most) bases and doing plenty of day trips from them.
I’ve written several two-week Japan itinerary options that would work, but as this blog post is now a whopper I’ve put them into a separate post there.
I think I’ll stop there before I hit 4,000 words. Hope this helps anyone planning their first trip. Have a brilliant time – I know you will. Let me know in the comments what your plans are. Or, if you’ve already been – what did you love? Any tips for our (many) future trips?
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