Regular readers of this blog will know that we are absolutely in love with Japan. The land of the rising sun is beguiling, fascinating and loads of fun. It is a country where bright, vibrant, blaring neon cities contrast with the elegance of traditional castles, temples, pagodas and exquisite gardens. We first visited Japan over twenty years ago and have returned many, many times. Here’s our guide to planning a trip to Japan.
Most people will fly into Japan either to Tokyo or Kansai (Osaka). Both airports are located a fair distance from the cities they serve but it’s easy to pick up public transport options to reach the metropolis. There are train services that run regularly and also limousine buses, which can get you to the city centres very easily.
Japan’s public transportation system is fully integrated and highly efficient. If you are travelling for any length of time and especially travelling between cities, we recommend the Japan Rail Pass.(It’s not recommended if you are only staying in one city as it wouldn’t be cost-effective.) The JR Pass is valid on all Japan Rail services, including the shinkansen bullet train, with the exception of the super-fast Nozomi service. Don’t worry, the other bullet trains are still pretty damned fast! And they are the most amazing way to travel.
You can buy a pass that is valid for 7, 14, or 21 days. Also, the JR Pass allows you to book seats on the shinkansen for free. Just book your seats at any JR office at any station.
You need to order the pass before you travel. You will receive a voucher. This is then exchanged at a JR station for your pass. It is time-stamped and valid from the first day of use on the stamp. There is a ticket office at Narita airport where you can get your pass – just follow the signs for the trains. Be aware that there may be a queue as lots of other tourists will be wanting to do the same as soon as they get off the plane. If you don’t want to activate it straight away, that’s fine.
When using the pass you don’t need to go through the usual entry/exit barriers. Just show your pass to the station staff in the office located at one side of the barriers and they will wave you through.
If travelling by train you can plan your journey using the excellent hyperdia website. Note that there are some private railways in Japan, notably in more rural areas, and the JR Pass is not valid on these.
Bus services in Japan are reliable and reasonably comfortable. They are especially useful when travelling through the countryside.
Taxis are available in most cities but they are expensive. They all have automatic doors.
Car hire is also easy to arrange if you want to visit rural areas. There is really no need to hire a car if you are visiting cities.
There are a variety of options depending on your budget. You can book standard hotels via the usual booking sites.
We tend to stay in business hotels, especially in the cities, as they offer cheap accommodation, albeit in tiny rooms. You can see our post about business hotels. They are very small but they contain all the facilities you might need. And you’re in Japan – you don’t want to spend all your time in a hotel room!
However, it is also worth splurging for a night or two to stay in a ryokan – a traditional Japanese inn. These often comprise several rooms, all laid out with tatami (reed) mat flooring. Your bedding will be a futon laid out on the floor.
You may well be served your dinner in your room. At other establishments you will eat dinner in the restaurant and your futon will be laid out by the maid while you are dining.
Ryokan may be ensuite although sometimes these establishments will have shared facilities. Some have lovely baths and you may be offered a time slot for bathing.
Japan is still a largely cash-based society and, although ATMs have become more common over the years, are still not as widespread as you might think. We tend to take Japanese yen with us. And, while no destination is 100% safe, we have always felt comfortable carrying cash and have never had any problems while doing so.
Most hotels and increasing numbers of shops and restaurants accept credit cards these days.
You can also get IC cards – Passmo and Suica are popular ones in Tokyo – that you can all over the metropolitan area you are visiting. You can tap them to use public transport, such as the metro, and use them to buy some products as well. It is possible to charge them up by adding more cash at convenience stores (known as konbini), such as Family Mart, Lawson and 7-11, which can be found all over Japan.
Just be careful that they are valid within the area you are travelling. For example a card used in Tokyo and the surrounding area may not be accepted in the Kansai region.
Eating and Drinking
Dining when you can’t understand the writing on the menu can be a bit daunting. When we first visited Japan English menus didn’t exist but these days increasing numbers of restaurants offer menus in English, Chinese and Korean.
And many restaurants have picture menus or plastic models of the food in the window. They will also show the prices, sometimes in ordinary numerals but sometimes in Kanji (the Japanese writing system). If you get really stuck, take your server outside and point at what you want!
Food is eaten with chopsticks and occasionally a spoon. It is rare to find knives and forks, and restaurants are usually unable to supply them. Bring your own if needed, but, better, learn to use chopsticks – it isn’t that difficult!
Most people will know the Japanese foods sushi, sashimi and ramen noodles but the cuisine has so much for offer.
There are prices to suit all budgets, from noodles at a railway station stand, where you eat standing up, to the full-on kaiseki ryori, Japanese haute cuisine.
And, if you are travelling on the train, it’s essential to enjoy a bento box meal – a lunch box full of goodies. There are even regional variations of bento sold at railway stations, known as eki-ben.
Izakaya are Japanese style pubs where you can enjoy drinks as well as order a variety of dishes.They are a great way to spend an evening.
Beware the cover charge, known as otoshi or tsukidashi, which is basically a table charge. Some establishments will have a fixed charge for drinking and eating there. It’s usually a few hundred yen per person and its aim is to encourage you to stay at that establishment. If you get a small starter or plate of snacks just after you sit at your table, it’s not a freebie, you are likely to be charged for it. Some bars in Tokyo will indicate whether a cover charge applies but it’s not always clear.
Tipping is not expected nor required in Japanese restaurants or bars – which makes life very easy. Just pay the bill. We have had some instances where restaurant proprietors have run after us with 5 yen change!
Customs and Etiquette
When we first visited Japan we were worried that we would fail to follow etiquette and make terrible faux pas all the way around the country. In fact Japanese people are incredibly friendly and welcoming and would not ostracise a visitor. But if you get the etiquette correct, your efforts are really appreciated.
As with travelling anywhere, it goes without saying that you should be polite and respectful. ‘Arigato’ means ‘thank you’ and ‘sumimasen’ means ‘excuse me’.
Absolute no-nos are wearing outdoor shoes inside. Always remove them before entering a home. Some restaurants may also request shoe removal and provide a locker for your shoes and some slippers that you can wear inside.
If you are using a shared bathroom at your accommodation bear in mind that your room slippers need to be changed for bathroom slippers. (Don’t forget to change them back when leaving the bathroom!)
If using a shared bath, for example at an onsen (hot spring resort), you should wash before getting into the bath so that you are clean before you start bathing. The bath is all about having a lovely, relaxing soak at the end of a day’s sightseeing.
If you are wearing a yukata (a cotton kimono) make sure that the left side of the material overlaps the right side- right over left is for dressing the dead.
Tattoos are still taboo in Japan because they are associated with yakuza (gangsters). If you plan to spend time in an onsen it is worth covering small tattoos with a sticking plaster. Be aware of tattoo polices, some accept people with tattoos, others may turn you away.
As mentioned above, you don’t tip in Japan. Unless you are staying at a high-end ryokan, where it is polite to leave a few hundred yen for the maid who will have laid out your bedding, although this isn’t compulsory. It is considered rude to hand people cash, so leave any tip in an envelope.
Handy Travelling Tips
If you are travelling on public transport and have a lot of luggage, it’s not the most comfortable way to travel, especially if you are lugging unwieldy cases. Instead you could use the Takkyubin service – a courier delivery service that will transfer your luggage to your next location (or beyond, hotels are usually happy to store your bags for a few days). Just ask for ‘Takkyubin’ at a hotel. The staff will be able to arrange it for you and take payment on your behalf. It’s a pretty cheap service and is extremely efficient. Our bags have travelled from one end of the country to the other overnight and we’ve just swanned up at the hotel with a daysack the following day and our luggage arrived ahear of us.
Useful hint: it’s helpful to have the address of your destination hotel written in Japanese – hotel staff will be happy to fill in the form for you. If you are using a booking service such as Booking.com, you can obtain a printout or use the app to find the address in the original language.
Another thing that you will notice about Japan is the sheer number of vending machines. It feels as though there is one on every corner. You can buy pretty much anything. Most are snacks and drinks machines, some will be able to sell hot beverages as well, and you can even buy beer. (We couldn’t imagine a full and working vending machine selling beer in the UK – it would get trashed in seconds!)
And you can drink the tap water in Japan, so make sure to bring a reusable water bottle with you.
Planning A Trip To Japan -Things to Do
Of course Japan offers all the usual attractions for tourists, such as museums, galleries, entertainment and shopping opportunities galore. But here are some quintessentially Japanese activities.
Kabuki is a form of Japanese highly stylised drama and it’s possible to visit the theatre in Ginza, Tokyo to see a play. When we visited we were given a leaflet which explained the plot for the play we were watching. The word kabuki is a combination of three characters which mean song (ka), dance (bu) and acting (ki) so you can expect all of these elements. All performers are male, even those playing female roles.
Another thing that surprised us is that there is an element of audience participation where viewers shout words of encouragement to their favourite actors. You can get tickets for a single act or a whole play.
If you’re a big kid and enjoy playing video games you’ll love the arcades in Japan. They can be found in any city. We can’t resist them – you can play all sorts of games from musical (drumming or dancing) to driving to betting on horse races. There are some where you can stand alongside a mannequin comedian and attempt to perform as a manzai (straight man, funny man comedy).
Just make sure you have a stash of 100 Yen coins.
Karaoke was invented in Japan and is now popular all over the world. The word derives from ‘kara’, meaning empty and ‘oke’ which is an abbreviation of ōkesutora (orchestra). In Japan you can visit karaoke establishments and hire a room for a set time period – just for you and your mates or travelling companions – thumb through the extensive book of songs (there will be loads in English) and sing your socks off. It’s great fun and there’s no need to worry about singing in front of strangers.
Big Echo is one of the most famous karaoke venues. You can also get a nomihodai – all you can drink – deal. There’s a phone where you can order drinks – although it would be helpful to be able to speak a bit of Japanese. The phone will also ring to let you know when you have 10 minutes before the room hire expires – the perfect time make Bohemian Rhapsody your final number!
Manga, Anime and Electronics
Japanese culture, particularly manga and anime, has become hugely popular all over the world and there are lots of opportunities to visit museums, such as the wonderful Studio Ghibli museum, and even museums located by some of the animation studios. There are some areas within certain cities which have hubs where you can go shopping for all the latest hi-tech gear or discover pop culture galore. Akihabara in Tokyo and DenDen town in Osaka offer loads of exciting places to explore for tech and culture fans alike.
Sumo is Japan’s national sport and is fascinating to watch. There are tournaments six times a year (three in Tokyo, alternating with ones in Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka) You can spend a day at the sumo if your trip coincides with a basho.
The rules of sumo are very simple: Two wrestlers face each other in a ring and, at the signal of mutual consent to begin, the bout commences. A wrestler loses when he is either forced out of the ring or touches the floor with any part of his body other than his feet.
You can read about our day at the sumo in this post. And if you can’t attend, you can often watch sumo wrestlers training at their stables.
Pachinko is definitely the loudest and possibly the most impenetrable activity we have ever done in Japan. It’s kind of like a vertical pinball machine where you pay for a bucket of silver balls, put them in the machine and turn the nob. Sometimes you might win a whole bunch of silver balls. You exchange these for a prize (which can be a bit bizarre, such as a box of razor blades!) which can then be swapped for cash in the booth outside the pachinko parlour.
This is gambling, which isn’t strictly legal in Japan, which is why you win a ‘prize’ rather than directly winning cash. The most we have ever spent is 1000 Yen (a few pounds) and, of course, we lost. We didn’t have a clue what we were doing but it was lots of fun anyway. Although our ears were ringing after leaving the room.
Because Japan is located in the Pacific Ring of Fire it is geothermally very active and has a lot of hot springs. And a country that has a lot of hot springs has a lot of hot spring resorts. Onsen are delightful places to relax and unwind, soaking in natural spring water. Some ryokan have their own onsen. A rotemburo is an outdoor onsen where you can relax and enjoy the natural surroundings. It’s worth knowing that some onsen are sex-segregated. We like bathing together, so tend to seek out private baths where we can relax together. Some of the ryokan we have stayed have a rotemburo which can be booked for a set time each evening.
The bath etiquette is that you undress in the changing area then have a shower/wash before you get into the bath. Make sure you have thoroughly rinsed off all soapy water. This means that you are clean before bathing and can just enjoy a lovely relaxing time in the warm water.
There are thousands of castles all over Japan. These impressive fortresses, constructed from stone and wood, were often strategically located along trade routes and were designed to provide strong defences. Many become the residences of feudal lords, known as daimyo,
Many Japanese castles are reconstructions, having been destroyed by fire and rebuilt over the centuries.
Some of the best castles are to be found at Matsumoto – the black crow castle…
Japanese gardens feature traditional designs that have their roots, if you will, in the country’s indigenous Shinto religion which recognises gods and spirits that are found in all things. Gardens often reflect the nature of the landscape and Japan’s distinctive seasons and use natural materials such as rocks, stones and water. Some gardens are very specialist, such as the zen gardens which comprise a minimalist landscape of rocks and stones.
Planning a Trip To Japan – Top Places to Visit
Here are a few suggestions for places to visit which will hopefully give you a flavour of what Japan has to offer as well whet your appetite for some local regional dishes.
Honshu – the main island
Japan’s capital city is a sprawling metropolis. There are so many places to explore and things to do you could spend your entire holiday here. Popular districts are Shinjuku, Shibuya (the place where young people hang out), Asakusa (a laid-back area with old-world feel which is home to the Senso-ji temple), Akihabara (the cool hi-tech area which has a lot of manga and anime stores as well as the Tokyo Anime Center) and Roppongi (the area where a lot of overseas residents and visitors reside or hang out).
We tend to stay in Shinjuku as it’s very central. There are all sorts of things to do, including foodie tours.
The Meiji shrine, dedicated to the deity of the Emperor Meiji is set in a lovely extensive park. It has a dramatic torii gate at its entrance.
Shibuya is the location of the famous road crossing – known as ‘The Scramble’ – and seen in many films and TV series where over 2000 people can cross in a single cycle of the pedestrian lights.
If you like the animations of Studio Ghibli, The Ghibli Museum in Mitaka is a must-see but you do have to book in advance.
Odaiba is an entertainment hub on an artificial island set in Tokyo Bay. Cross the rainbow bridge to find all sorts of activities and shopping. And a monument that somehow seems familiar…
There are also plenty of day trips from Tokyo. Nikko is a historic city and the home of the Toshogu Shinto shrine.
A tour of the Fuji Five Lakes area is a possibility from Tokyo. You might get a glimpse of Japan’s iconic mountain (if the weather is clear!) and sail on a pirate ship across Lake Ashinoko.
A few hours from Tokyo on the bullet train Kansai’s commercial capital is a neon paradise and a fantastic place for foodies. Head out to the dotonbori area for a range of amazing restaurants and a vibrant nightlife.
Typical Osaka dishes include okonomiyaki (kind of a cross between an pancake and a pizza) and takoyaki – octopus balls in batter.
A tour of this ancient city offers lots of historic buildings, temples and pagodas to explore all set within a park. The highlight is Tōdai-ji which houses Daibutsu, a 15m-high bronze Buddha.
A fascinating and beautiful place, just watch out for the local deer who roam across the park – they are usually hungry!
Japan’s former capital doesn’t look the part initially but has some beautiful and important historic places to visit. Just look closely and you will find a temple almost everywhere. A hop-on, hop-off bus tour is a great way to explore the city. Amongst the many treasures, there are some must-see highlights:
The Temple of the Golden Pavilion
The Ryoanji zen garden is a place for contemplation
And the Fushimi Inari shrine, a short train ride outside the main city, with its plethora of vermillion torii (temple gates) to wander through.
A city with an horrific history, Hiroshima has recovered to become a modern, cosmopolitan city. The Peace Park and museum give a balanced history of the atomic bombing and, while it is a difficult place to visit, is also a peaceful and contemplative place.
The Peace Park has a non-eternal flame which will be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon on earth has been decommissioned.
Don’t forget to visit the island of Miyajima which is a short journey away. Tours are available from Hiroshima. You can see the iconic Torii gate in the sea, one of the top three iconic views of Japan.
If you enjoy hiking in splendid countryside, the Japan Alps are ideal. Kamikochi and Norikura Kogen are delightful places to visit.
And the gassho houses of rural Honshu offer a fascinating glimpse into traditional rural life. You can stay in a farmhouse in Ainokura.
Staying in a gassho you are likely to try the local produce – fresh river fish and mountain vegetables.
There are a number of tours available to visit these delightful villages.
Hokkaido – The Northern Island
The capital of Hokkaido is a laid back city. It has a snow festival every winter and you can view amazing snow sculptures in the extensive city park.
You can visit the Sapporo beer museum to learn about – and taste – some of Japan’s most famous beers.
A day trip from Sapporo to Yoichi is a great opportunity to try Japanese whiskey at the Nikka distillery – the area has a similar soil type and climate conditions to Scotland. There are freebie samples in the tasting hall too!
If you like seafood, particularly crab, head to Hakodate where you can enjoy crab for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Rice bowls are available for good prices at the market.
Kyushu – The Southern Island
Another city famous for its history Nagasaki was the port city through which Japan traded with the outside world during the Tokugawa shogunate between 1639 and 1859 period, when the rest of the country was effectively isolated.
A major shipbuilding centre, it was the target for the second atomic bomb that was dropped on Japan. Like Hiroshima, the city has recovered and also has a museum about the bombing, with a significant emphasis on the call to ban nuclear weapons.
Nagasaki is famous for its champon noodle dish, inspired by Chinese cuisine. The noodles are boiled in the soup and hence acquire some its rich flavour.
This is a lively city in the shadow of the very active Sakurajima volcano.
Sakurajima is still very active.
Kagoshima is famous for its kuro buta – black pork, from a specific breed of pig. The tonkotsu ramen, with its creamy umami broth and topped with pork slices, is sublime.
Sometimes described as the Las Vegas of Japan (it isn’t really), Beppu is a resort town well known for its onsen hot springs.
A place to relax and unwind, as well as to visit the “Hells” – thermal hot springs each of which has a specific theme.
A ferry ride away from Kagoshima this small island is a wonderful place to explore. It was the inspiration for the setting of Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke anime.
The cuisine on Yakushima is fresh, local seafood and vegetables and is delicious.
The fourth largest of Japan’s major islands Shikoku offers an opportunity to experience a more rural Japan. It has a pilgrimage route, dedicated to the 9th-century monk Kukai, which comprises 88 Buddhist temples over a 1200km route.
Okinawa is an archipelago south of the main islands and offers a very different view of Japan. It’s sometimes known as the ‘Hawaii of Japan’ and is off the beaten track. It has broad, sandy beaches and crystal clear water as well as a great natural beauty. It also has its own cuisine which offers a variety of dishes that are a contrast to mainland Japanese food.
Japan has so many other amazing places to visit, this post could have gone on for several more pages. Hopefully this has offered a taste of the many wonderful things Japan can offer. We can’t recommend a visit highly enough. We’re already planning our next trip…
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