Planning a Trip to Japan: DOs & DON’Ts (2024)

japan travel ideas

This post is based on an amazing guide our friend Amy Dunn-Cham compiled for us, full of her Japan tips on how to plan a trip to Japan years ago. We have since visited Japan five times and update this post regularly with what we’ve learned.

Ah, Japan, irasshaimase! Welcome to the land where everything just works. Japan is a place of convenience, delicious food, paradoxes, naked strangers, and a culture that truly values respect in every aspect of society.

The food in Japan can be described as clean and minimalist, yet never simple. This perfectly captures the essence of Japan as a whole. It’s a country that exceeds any expectations you may have upon arrival.

In Japan, you’ll encounter the fastest, sleekest, and most efficient trains you’ve ever seen, but you’ll also come across paper posters pegged up on the walls of Tokyo subway stations. While the futuristic architecture is truly amazing, traditional wooden buildings can still be found scattered throughout the cities.

Yes, Japan has the busiest crossing in the world (Shibuya), but despite the crowds, there is never chaos. You won’t need to bang on a cab screaming, “Hey, I’m walking here!”

And while you may see scarily trendy, funkily clad young people who love to cosplay on weekends, you’ll also witness families enjoying evening outings to sentos (public bathhouses).

In this Japan travel guide, we’ll help you make sense of it all and share our best tips for planning a trip to Japan.

Contents

2024 Update: No Japan Travel Restrictions

Japan reopened to independent international tourists on October 11, 2022.

On April 29, 2023, remaining restrictions were dropped, and visitors no longer need to show proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test. The indoor masking recommendation was also lifted by the government. While many Japanese people still wear masks, it is unlikely that you will be required to.

With the yen at its lowest value in decades, now is a great time to travel to Japan.

Healthcare in Japan can be expensive, so we highly recommend purchasing travel insurance that covers Covid-19 medical expenses. SafetyWing Insurance is an excellent budget option, especially for longer trips and families with children under 10 (as they are free). It’s available worldwide.

If you’re looking for a more comprehensive policy with cancellation cover, Heymondo travel insurance is a great choice. We used it on our last Japan trip and received a 5% discount for our readers. It’s also available worldwide.

When to Visit Japan

We’ve visited Japan in all four seasons and can confidently say that there is no bad time to go.

In winter, it can be chilly and gardens may look a bit bare, but crowds are lower, and you’ll find great deals on accommodation. Plus, it’s the perfect opportunity to enjoy the onsens (hot springs) and have the best chance of seeing snow-capped Mount Fuji.

Summer in Japan is steaming hot and humid, with June being the rainiest month. However, there are fewer foreign tourists, and you can immerse yourself in local festivals. It’s also the best time to visit the beaches and the only time you can climb Mount Fuji.

The most popular and best overall times to visit Japan are spring (March-April) and autumn (October – early December). During these seasons, you can witness the gorgeous cherry blossoms (sakura) or the vibrant autumn leaves (koyo). It may be more crowded and expensive, but the weather is ideal, and the scenery is simply stunning.

If you’re interested in the cherry blossoms in Kyoto, check out our guide for more information on the popular sakura season.

During our recent autumn trip, we experienced warm weather (up to 77ºF/25ºC) with very little rain from October until mid-November. However, the temperature suddenly dropped in Kyoto ahead of the leaves turning color.

How Long to Spend in Japan

The question of how long to spend in Japan is a difficult one because there is so much to see and do. Even after months of exploring, we still have a long bucket list of places to visit.

For first-time visitors, we recommend spending two weeks in Japan. This will give you enough time to see some highlights such as Tokyo, Kyoto, and one or two smaller destinations. Check out our Japan two-week itinerary for suggestions.

One week is the minimum time we recommend for a Japan trip. If you prefer a more relaxed vacation, you can spend the whole week in either Tokyo or Kyoto and take day trips. Alternatively, if you don’t mind a more fast-paced trip, you can visit both major cities with an overnight stop on the way, such as Hakone.

To decide which places interest you the most and to come up with an itinerary, read our guide on the best places to visit in Japan.

Video: Best Japan Destinations

Watch this video for some Japan trip ideas.

Before Your Japan Trip

  • Check if you need a visa. Visa-free travel is possible for citizens of 68 countries for stays of up to 90 days, including the US, UK, Canada, Australia, and the EU. Make sure to have a return or onward flight out of the country, as immigration may question you upon arrival. However, the process is usually pleasant and not overly strict.
  • Purchase your Japanese Rail Pass exchange order before you travel to Japan if needed. This will allow you to travel on the luxurious shinkansen (bullet train) without the need to book seats in advance. Simply choose a train, wave your pass, and hop on. Foreigners can order the pass online from JRailPass.com. Read our guide to whether a Japan Rail Pass is worth it for more information.
  • Learn some Japanese, especially numbers. While Google Translate can be helpful, it’s much more fun and appreciated by locals to learn basic Japanese phrases. Rocket Japanese online course offers comprehensive lessons with natural dialogue and culture tips. It may be a bit pricey, but it provides lifetime access, and discounts are often available.
  • Get an International Driving Permit if you plan on go-karting on the real Tokyo roads dressed as your favorite character. It’s a unique and fun experience in Japan.
  • Arrange travel insurance that covers healthcare expenses in Japan. Healthcare can be expensive, so it’s crucial to have proper coverage in case of emergencies. Heymondo and SafetyWing are two reliable options available worldwide.
  • Apply for a Mastercard credit or debit card if you don’t already have one. Some Japanese websites do not work well with Visa, so having a backup card is always a good idea. Starling Bank debit card (UK only) is a great option for free international transactions and cash withdrawals.
  • Walk as much as possible and wear comfortable shoes. Japan cities require a lot of walking, so it’s best to prepare by wearing comfortable footwear.
  • Practice using chopsticks as they are essential for eating in almost every restaurant in Japan. Trying out sitting on the floor is also a good idea as some restaurants and experiences may require it.
  • Buy a pre-paid transport IC card for local trains, metro, and buses. These cards allow you to easily tap on and off without worrying about buying tickets. In Kyoto and Osaka, the card is called ICOCA, while in Tokyo, it’s Suica or Pasmo. You can use any of these cards all over the country. Physical cards are currently in short supply, so it’s recommended to add Suica to Apple Wallet on your phone or watch. Visa is not accepted as a payment method, so use Apple Pay, Mastercard, or American Express to top up. This contactless payment method is convenient and widely used in Japan.
  • Set up an Airalo eSIM for affordable data on your phone. Having access to maps and translation apps like Google Translate will make your trip much easier. Airalo offers simple eSIM setup before your arrival, starting at just US$4.50. If your phone doesn’t support eSIMs, you can purchase a physical Umobile SIM from a vending machine at Tokyo Narita Airport. Just make sure your phone is unlocked.
  • Sign up for the Timeout Tokyo newsletter to receive updates on special events happening during your stay.
  • Buy tickets in advance for places like Ghibli Museum and Ghibli Park if you’re a Studio Ghibli fan. These spots are extremely popular, and it’s essential to book ahead. Research other attractions and restaurants that require advance booking and set reminders for when bookings become available.

General Dos and Don’ts in Japan

DO:

  • Consider getting a Japan Rail Pass to enjoy the luxury of shinkansen hopping. These passes are only available to foreigners and can be ordered online from JRailPass.com. Read our guide to whether a Japan Rail Pass is worth it.
  • Bow if someone bows to you, and don’t turn your back upon exit. However, don’t overdo it or you’ll appear like a total gaijin (foreigner). Bowing to supermarket checkout staff is not necessary.
  • Pre-book accommodation, especially ryokans (traditional inns) and hotels in smaller towns. Japanese people appreciate being prepared for your arrival, so random walk-ins at ryokans are not recommended. Booking.com is a reliable website for finding accommodations, and Airbnb and Vrbo offer affordable apartment options in major cities.
  • Experience an onsen (hot spring). While it may not be ideal in summer due to high water temperatures, soaking in a traditional hot spring is one of the most typical and relaxing activities in Japan. Embrace the nudity, as it is customary in these establishments.
  • Stay in a ryokan for a unique and traditional experience. These accommodations can be pricey but are worth it for at least a night or two. Many ryokans offer amazing meals that are usually included in the room rates, and some can cater to vegetarians/vegans. Tsukihitei in Nara and Nanzenji Ryokan Yachiyo in Kyoto are highly recommended.
  • Stay in a traditional tatami mat room if you can’t afford a ryokan. K’s House hostels offer traditional rooms in locations such as Hakone, Kyoto, and Izu Peninsula, providing an authentic experience at a more affordable price.
  • Appreciate the zen-like calm on all modes of transport. Quiet-only carriages are not necessary in Japan, as everyone respects the need for silence. However, remember that it’s considered rude to speak on your phone while on trains.
  • Use Google Translate to communicate with locals. While English may not be widely spoken, the Google Translate app can be helpful for translating phrases and even images. It’s an essential tool for navigating Japan.
  • See a sumo tournament or practice session if you have the opportunity. The pre- and post-game rituals are fascinating to watch, and seeing these impressive sumo wrestlers up close is an incredible experience.
  • Expect bursts of quirkiness in Japan. The country is known for its unique and quirky attractions, and it’s okay to embrace the unexpected.
  • Get a paper fortune at a Japanese Buddhist temple. It’s a fun and exciting experience, and you can receive insights into your future. Sensoji Temple in Tokyo and the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto are great places to try this out.
  • Love and appreciate the Japanese people for their never-ending capacity to help you. They will go above and beyond to assist you until you’re satisfied.
  • Read books about Japan before your trip to gain a greater understanding of the country’s culture and traditions.
  • Have some sushi! Sushi is an essential part of Japanese cuisine, and trying it at a sushi-train or sushi stand-up bar is a fun and unique experience. While vegetarian sushi may not be as common, there are still options available.
  • Appreciate the plastic food models often displayed outside restaurants. These models are true works of art and can help you decide what to order.

DON’T:

  • Rent a car unless you plan on traveling far off the beaten track. Japan’s train system is incredibly efficient, and public transportation is the best way to get around.
  • Open the door when taking a taxi. The doors are either automated or the driver will open them for you. It’s also helpful to have your destination’s address written down in Japanese, as most taxi drivers do not speak English.
  • Feel bad if you need to take a break from Japanese food. Japan offers a diverse culinary scene, and indulging in comfort meals can be refreshing during your trip.
  • Forget to check opening hours. Japanese restaurants and attractions often have specific opening hours, and some may have a last order/entry policy 30 to 60 minutes before closing.
  • Rush around the country too much. It’s more energy-efficient to base yourself in one place and take day trips. For example, you can stay in Kyoto and explore nearby cities like Okayama.
  • Wear holey socks. Taking your shoes on and off constantly will only embarrass you.
  • Enter an onsen without washing first. It’s important to maintain cleanliness and hygiene. Also, avoid going into the bathing area with a towel wrapped around you, as it’s not customary and may draw attention.
  • Neglect to wash your hands before using a Japanese Buddhist temple’s restroom. It’s considered dirty and disrespectful not to do so. Additionally, take a moment to appreciate the miracle of heated toilet seats in colder weather.
  • Miss the opportunity to see toriis (shrine gates) everywhere, especially small red ones in rows. Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto is particularly famous for its mesmerizing rows of toriis.
  • Ignore the beautiful presentation of everything in Japan, from architecture to the way bento boxes are wrapped. The attention to detail and aesthetics in Japanese culture is truly remarkable.
  • Pack heavily. Japan’s efficient train system and limited storage space in hotels make it easier to travel with less luggage. Consider traveling with just carry-on baggage. The Away Bigger Carry-On is a highly recommended suitcase for this purpose.
  • Consider using luggage shipping services if you have large baggage. This allows you to travel with less hassle and can be a convenient option for transporting your belongings between hotels.
  • Forget to withdraw cash from 7-11 ATMs. These ATMs are the most reliable no-fee option for international cards and can be found practically everywhere. Always carry cash with you, as many places in Japan do not accept credit cards. Withdraw cash from less touristy areas to avoid additional charges.
  • Use Navitime to check train times and prices, and to determine if a Japan Rail Pass is worth it for your itinerary.
  • Visit BIC Camera for any electronics you may need. These large stores offer a wide range of products and are excellent for tax-free purchases. Make sure to bring your passport if you plan on making larger purchases.

Autumn themed dishes and chefs at work at Monk restaurant in Kyoto

Japan is a popular destination, and many hotels, restaurants, and attractions book up in advance. While it’s still possible to have a fantastic last-minute trip, it’s recommended to research and book your desired activities months in advance.

On our most recent trip to Japan during the busy autumn season, we booked the following in advance:

5 Months Before

  • Flights: Booking flights to Tokyo Narita (NRT), Tokyo Haneda (HND), or Kansai International Airport in Osaka (KIX) is a personal preference. Choose an airport that best suits your travel plans.

4 Months Before

  • Tokyo DisneySea Hotel MiraCosta: This hotel is located within the best Disney park in the world. Rooms go on sale four months in advance and sell out quickly. Practice runs are highly recommended to secure a booking.

3 Months Before

  • Harry Potter Studio Tour, Tokyo: We booked this tour seven weeks in advance, but earlier bookings are recommended as availability can be limited. Check both Klook and the Warner Bros Studio Tour website for different options.

2 Months Before

  • Ghibli Park, Nagoya: Tickets for Ghibli Park go on sale on the 10th of each month, two months in advance. These tickets sell out quickly, so be prepared to book as soon as they become available.
  • Teamlab Planets, Tokyo: Book early if you want to secure a specific time slot for this popular interactive digital art exhibition. We booked through Get Your Guide. TeamLab Borderless is also a must-visit attraction, but tickets sell out fast.
  • Some Restaurants: Monk in Kyoto and Shigetsu in Kyoto were booked exactly two months in advance. Creating a Tablecheck account is helpful as many restaurants use this platform for bookings.
  • Saihoji (Moss Temple), Kyoto: This temple is a bit expensive, but it’s our favorite. Reservations open two months in advance and are highly recommended if you have enough time in Kyoto.
  • Universal Studios Japan Express Passes: These passes allow you to skip the lines at this busy amusement park in Osaka. We purchased the Express Pass 7 – Backdrop and Spiderman on Klook. Entrance tickets for Universal Studios Japan were also purchased on Klook.

1 Month Before

  • Ghibli Museum, Tokyo: Tickets for the Ghibli Museum become available at 10am JST on the 10th of each month for the following month.
  • Shibuya Sky, Tokyo: Bookings open four weeks in advance at midnight Japan time. It’s recommended to book early to secure a slot before sunset.
  • Tours and Restaurants: Book any additional tours and priority restaurants as you finalize your itinerary.

2 Weeks Before

  • Shinkansen Train Seat Reservations: We used the SmartEx website to book seat reservations for the shinkansen train. It can be a bit difficult to set up, but it’s a handy tool. When traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto, make sure to choose a seat on the right side of the train for potential Mount Fuji views. If you have large suitcases, you’ll need to make an oversized baggage reservation as well.
  • Airport Taxi Pickup: We prefer to use a taxi for transportation from Haneda Airport to central Tokyo for convenience. Booking this service in advance ensures a smooth arrival.
  • More Tours and Restaurants: Book any remaining priorities as you finalize your itinerary.

Takayama, one of the stops on our Japan 2-week itinerary

Japan offers a plethora of amazing destinations, but here are a few to get you started:

  • Tokyo: The best of modern Japan with incredible food, diverse neighborhoods, and unique experiences. Check out our list of cool things to do in Tokyo and discover the best vegetarian restaurants in the city.
  • Kyoto: The best of traditional Japan with numerous stunning temples to explore. Read our guide on the best things to do in Kyoto.
  • Takayama: A smaller, quieter alternative for experiencing traditional Japan. The historic center is filled with preserved wooden houses and has a beautiful atmosphere.
  • Hakone: Perfect for a chance to see Mount Fuji, enjoy mountain scenery, visit lakes, soak in onsens, and experience fun transport options like cable cars and pirate ships.
  • Kawaguchiko: Offers even better views of Mount Fuji from Lake Kawaguchiko.
  • Nikko: Known for its stunning temples nestled in the forest. Nikko can also be visited as a day trip from Tokyo.
  • Hiroshima: Visit the moving peace memorial that commemorates the atomic bombing and don’t miss nearby Miyajima Island with its famous floating torii gate.

For a detailed guide to visiting many of these places, including things to do, transportation options, and recommendations for accommodation and dining, check out our Japan 2 Week Itinerary. Additionally, our guide to the best places to go in Japan offers more ideas for your trip.

  • Is a Japan Rail Pass Worth It?
  • 54 Best Things to Do in Japan for an Unforgettable Trip
  • Where to Stay in Japan: A Guide to Accommodation Options
  • 20 Fascinating Books to Read Before Visiting Japan
  • 16 Unmissable Places to Visit in Japan
  • Vegetarian Survival Guide to Japan

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