Planning a Trip to Japan? 20+ Essential Travel Tips to Know Before You Go

“By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
~ Benjamin Franklin.

So, you’re planning a trip to Japan for the first time? If you’re anything like me, just the thought of preparing for a trip to Japan makes me want to scream it from the rooftops with excitement – even better now all travel restrictions have been lifted!

But, how to plan a trip to Japan on your own? It’s understandable this can seem like a daunting (and overwhelming) task. How to travel in Japan? Where to travel in Japan depending on your travel type??

With my fictitious magical crystal ball, I know you’re going to be fine – I’ve got your back as over the past decade I’ve planned dozens of Japan travel itineraries myself and I love sharing my Japan travel tips with you. I thrive on exploring popular places as well as Japan off the beaten path to avoid the crowds, too.

Planning a Trip to Japan: 20+ Essential Tips to Know Before You Go

As a self-confessed Japanophile who visits a few times per year, my next Japan travel plan is always in the works behind the scenes (even after I’ve just returned!). Therefore, the information I share with you is as accurate as possible. Just consider me your Japan trip planner.

From the best time to visit, transport, accommodation, places to visit by interest, experiences, navigation, language, how much cash, overall budget and more, the following checklist is my tried-and-tested process to help you have THE best Japan vacation ever. Read on for more!

How to prepare for a trip to Japan in 2024

The best news? As of April 2023, all Japan travel restrictions were completely dropped, which means no more masks (unless you want to), no PCR tests or certificates to enter the country.

On a separate note, there are other super important things to know before travelling to Japan, let’s start with an interesting fact. According to a survey, over two-thirds of Americans have lied about how awesome their trip was.

The pressures of social media, keeping up appearances and lack of trip planning beforehand are said to have contributed to this. Visitors set unrealistic expectations and as a result, were left disappointed.

If you’ve ever thought “I want to go to Japan,” in this travel guide for Japan I’m going to outline everything you need to know and how to not look like a tourist so you can have the most amazing trip ever.

20+ Crucial tips & things to know before going to Japan

All too often in Japan travel planning groups and online forums I see the same common tourist mistakes over and over. They may know a handful of things Japan is famous for, but that’s it. Even once they’ve returned, they mention that their trip to Japan wasn’t as perfect as they expected.

And I don’t want this for you! It’s so easy to avoid disappointment with my below travel tips for Japan and a little preparation beforehand, believe me!

Being prepared beforehand is key to a successful and enjoyable trip! Here’s what you need to know when preparing for a trip to Japan:

1. Hire a pocket wifi or buy a 4G SIM card for your phone when visiting Japan

Although there is free wifi at many hotels and at some restaurants, cafes and public spaces, it may be a good idea to hire a pocket wifi or buy a Japan SIM card to use on an unlocked phone during your trip.

It’s super handy to have access to Google Maps and GPS for navigation and much more without fear of bill shock and data roaming charges.

If you book pocket wifi in advance, you’ll be able to pick up and drop off at the airport of your choice. It’s such a great system for tourists. You can book your pocket wifi in advance here, (and read my user’s guide for how to rent and use pocket wifi in Japan).

I’ve also written a detailed answer to “is Klook legit?” if you want to learn more.

Nishi Kyushu Shinkansen Kamome

2. Don’t blindly buy a Japan Rail Pass thinking all tourists need it

I see almost every other travel blogger recommend buying a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass) as something you ABSOLUTELY need to do when visiting Japan for the first time. Contrary to popular belief, this is simply not true.

To be realistic, it depends on what you value as a traveller – saving time or saving money. It’s hard to find a balance between both sometimes.

What no one seems to mention about the Japan Rail Pass

  1. The Japan Rail Pass does not cover ALL types of shinkansen (bullet trains) in Japan and there are quite a few. Along with the Mizuho, Nozomi shinkansen are NOT covered by the pass.
  2. I didn’t bother with the JR Pass for my first Japan trip. By buying individual Nozomi tickets I was able to save over 5 hours of travel time during the course of my 2 weeks in Japan, so I didn’t mind outlaying the extra cost for the Nozomi trains.
  3. Privately owned rail lines (such as the Odakyu Express to Hakone) are also not covered by the Japan Rail Pass.

Consider if the pass is worth it when planning a trip to Japan

On 1 October 2023 the JR Pass price increased 77%, making it not worthwhile for the majority of tourists from a cost perspective. More details on my Instagram here.

However, some tourists don’t mind the extra cost as the JR Pass allows them the flexibility of not having to queue up to purchase tickets in advance.

TIP: My suggestion is to use the JR Pass calculator to see whether the price of the pass versus your number of days in Japan will be worth it for you.

How to order a Japan Rail Pass

  1. Is the JR Pass right for you? Make sure you buy a Japan Rail Pass in advance here and leave enough time for the exchange voucher to be posted to you at home. These are more expensive once you arrive in Japan so make a note to get a rail pass before you go!
  2. Alternatively, take a look at these regional passes for Japan if sticking to a few areas, as of late 2023 we can now purchase individual shinkansen tickets in advance which can save time queuing up.

TIP: My personal tip when planning a trip to Tokyo is there’s no need for a JR Pass, as you’re limited to the green JR Yamanote line, which runs in a big ring around the city. The Tokyo Subway Pass is better value for Tokyo alone, as the metro system is better connected. Subway Pass offers unlimited travel for 24, 48 or 72 hours at a discount.

TIP: Some people prefer to pre-purchase a Suica card (IC card) to use on the Tokyo Metro and other private lines around Tokyo (there are a few!). Due to a semiconducter shortage, tourists are advised to use the Welcome Suica or Pasmo cards instead (valid for 28 days). These cards are reloadable, save purchasing individual tickets and can be used on most transport throughout Japan.

Books for planning a trip to Japan

3. Take time to read these Japan travel books for inspiration

Bookworms will have a field day! Of course, the Internet can be a great place to find inspiration for a trip. But sometimes flicking through a book can be even better! There are many types of travel books on the market, so it might be tough to decide which ones to help you plan your trip to Japan.

I’ve written this detailed guide on my favourite Japan travel books to help make the choice easier for you. Complete with dog-earred pages, I review and share the most useful books I use when planning my trips to Japan, and where you can find them.

Mt Fuji during winter in Japan

4. When is the best time to visit Japan? Choose your season carefully

Time for the million-dollar question: When is the best time to visit Japan? Firstly, the “best” time is quite subjective because each season has its positive and negative traits. Secondly, it completely depends on your interests and preferences as a traveller.

I’ve visited in all four seasons and personally, I believe visiting Japan during the low season is quite underrated (June – September), as are early October and the second half of January. A lack of tourist crowds is a huge bonus these days, right?

TIP: Planning a Japan trip for your honeymoon? Perhaps you’ve already set your wedding date, so my 10 days in Japan itinerary will help you explore the best of each city no matter the season!

When choosing the best time to go to Japan, weigh up the pros and cons for each season:

Winter in Japan

  • Winter months are not usually busy in terms of sightseeing, but it is the ski season first and foremost.
  • Cities will be less crowded as everyone is in the ski fields, so it’s a good time to visit if you’re not planning to ski.
  • In saying that, New Year’s is a huge celebration in Japan so expect crowds in major cities.
  • December also boasts the highest chance to see Mount Fuji with a 77% likelihood due to the crisp winter air.

TIP: Read my detailed guide to unusual things no one tells you about visiting Japan in winter so you’re not surprised by some things as I was!

Spring in Japan

  • Cherry blossoms – need I say more? While the climate is still fairly cool, spring in Japan is a wonderful (and VERY popular) time to visit.
  • Although the overwhelming positive trait here is seeing the blossoms, the negative is the crazy amount of crowding in recent years, especially in Kyoto where the ancient city was not designed to handle such high visitor numbers at once.
  • You also need to book accommodation well in advance – sometimes up to 12 months to ensure you get what you want.

TIP: If you’re hoping to visit during the cherry blossom season, my detailed guide to spring in Japan is packed with tips for more places to go, alternatives to popular spots, what to pack and how to avoid the huge crowds!

Summer in Japan

  • The summer months mean typhoon season in Japan. Climate throughout much of the country ranges from warm to hot (depending on what you’re used to at home!).
  • During my multiple summer visits to Japan, the rain came and went quite quickly, which was sometimes a welcome change to the heat.
  • The typhoon season has another drawback: the extra humidity means that if you’re planning to see Mount Fuji, it’s not the best time as she is likely to be blanketed in cloud.

In saying that, there are some great benefits when visiting Japan in summer. Outside of summer break, tourist crowds are at their lowest. I also learnt that summer is actually the BEST time to visit the snow monkeys! Find out why in my guide to visiting Jigokudani Monkey Park in summer, a must for any Nagano itinerary.

Autumn/Fall in Japan

  • Stunning fall foliage starts to creep down from the north of the country, turning Japanese maples and other deciduous trees into brilliant hues of reds and oranges.
  • The weather is moderate and beginning to cool down, meaning there are still crowds although maybe not as many as during the cherry blossom season.

Mt Fuji from a bullet train travelling 300km/h between Tokyo and Kyoto

5. Buy tickets in advance to popular activities

In my timeline for what to prepare for a Japan trip further down this page, I outline when is the best time to buy tickets in advance to popular activities and events.

Japanese people have a unique cultural heritage and are very proud to share this with visitors. Embrace bar hopping with locals, traditional tea ceremonies, authentic cooking classes, theme parks and much more!

As sumo tournaments are only held 3 times per year in Tokyo (January, May and September), a tournament may not correspond with your trip. If you’re still keen to see the sumo, it’s possible to book a small group tour to see the wrestlers perform their morning practice with this Tokyo Sumo Practice Tour.

6. Discover hidden areas with the expertise of a local guide

Getting to know the destination with a local guide is one of my personal favourite experiences to add to an itinerary, especially when planning a trip to Japan.

  • Not only do local guides share their insider secrets, but it’s always a whole lot of fun learning about local culture.
  • I’ve taken multiple small group tours in Japan with different companies and can highly recommend the experiences. I wouldn’t have known about special RED sake exclusive to Kyoto without a guide otherwise!
  • Local guides in Japan are friendly, knowledgeable and keen to answer questions about their hometown to help enrich your trip. It’s also a great way to meet other travellers and make some new friends.

TIP: I’ve rounded up the many and best food tours in Tokyo I’ve enjoyed and highly recommend you add to your itinerary!

TIP: Read my detailed tour reviews from all over Japan for more.

7. Understand the rules regarding Airbnb in Japan before you book

Prior to June 2018, Airbnb and their counterparts were unregulated homestay services in Japan. Known as minpaku, these rentals caused an overwhelming number of issues from noisy and inconsiderate tourists returning to their Airbnb in the wee hours and upsetting local residents, to driving up long-term rental prices for locals.

While minpaku can be helpful to locals and tourists in rural areas where accommodation options are limited, in the larger cities I personally do not recommend Airbnb in Japan for ethical reasons.

A safer option is reputable hotels, hostels and regulated traditional accommodation options. These include ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), minshuku (guest house) and shukubo (temple lodging), but of course the choice is up to you.

TIP: If you like the idea of staying in local accommodation but don’t wish to use Airbnb’s platform, these ethical alternatives to Airbnb may be an option for you!

Tsuko-tegata (wooden passports) from Miyajima Island (left) and Nara (right)

8. Know what to pack for Japan

Knowing how to prepare for a trip to Japan includes finding out what to pack (and what to leave behind). The climate between different seasons can vary drastically in Japan, so it’s a good idea to learn the approximate temperatures for the time of year you’ll be visiting and pack accordingly.

If you’re going to climb Mt Fuji or partake in hiking activities, it’s important to pack the correct gear and footwear!

TIP: My detailed guide to what to pack for Japan has all your essentials covered for every season, including visa (if required), the Visit Japan Web service, what to wear, plus what NOT to wear to better “blend in” – save the packing checklist for reference later!

Some items you may forget to pack for Japan

  • Correct power adaptors for your electronics to be used in Japan.
  • Charging equipment for all your devices, spare camera batteries, memory cards, etc.
  • An inflatable neck pillow like this is also a great idea because Japan is a long haul flight for most of us. No one wants a crook neck after a 10+ hour flight!
  • Investing in a set of packing cubes is also a serious game changer and makes temporarily living out of a suitcase a breeze. These babies help keep your belongings organised so there’s no rummaging about necessary.

I would normally recommend packing a small umbrella but Japan has the BEST compact ones (especially the Waterfront brand), so just buy one as a souvenir once you get there. Make sure you remember to pack your important travel documents such as your passport and Japan Rail Pass, too!

NOTE: By law, foreigners in Japan are required to carry their passport at all times (not just a copy). It’s a good idea to take a photocopy/photo of the identification page of your passport and page that was stamped by Japanese immigration when you arrived and leave it in your hotel safe as a backup.

Playing With Reflections at Shibuya Sky, Tokyo

9. Plan to wander off the beaten path

Many tourists seem to stick to the Tokyo-Kyoto-Osaka route, which is fine as everyone wants to experience these incredible cities. But there is always so much more to a city or country if you can spend time exploring further outside a touristy bubble.

Crowds will be less of a bother and visiting out-of-the-way areas makes the experience more pleasant, rather than having to compete for space and photo opportunities with swathes of other tourists, especially during busy periods.

What I mean about exploring off the beaten path in Japan extends to within major cities and also exploring cities less frequented or undiscovered by tourists. Spending your tourist dollars (read: yen) in less-popular areas means local businesses will love you!

TIP: Browse through all my articles for exploring Japan off the beaten track and my guides for hidden gems in Kyoto, hidden gems in Tokyo and how to get to them.

10. Learn the cultural do’s and don’ts in Japan to not be an annoying tourist

With many unique cultural differences that surprise visitors who weren’t aware beforehand, it’s a good idea to know what not to do in Japan.

I won’t go into too much detail here about these differences because I believe these are do’s and don’ts for when you’re actually IN Japan, not in the overall trip planning phase (which is where you are at now).

The issue of overtourism sweeping cities like Kyoto, Nara and Miyajima inspired me to dedicate an entire article to Japanese etiquette so be sure to take a look once you’re done here.

Find out the correct chopstick etiquette, what NOT to do if you see a geisha, why you need to carry socks or slip-on shoes, how to behave like Japanese people on public transport, info about the toilets, tipping and more. It’s a handy guide to bookmark so you don’t do something offensive you weren’t aware of!

TIP: Japanese people are some of the most polite in the world, so please remember to return the favor.

When planning a trip to Japan, allow time to visit Kinkaku-ji

11. Find out what to buy in Japan

There are so many interesting and unique souvenirs from Japan, it can be overwhelming to know what to buy!

Aside from the obvious things Japan is famous for such as anime, electronics, matcha green tea, and a crazy array of snacks, many other Japanese souvenirs are traditional and have special meanings associated with them.

TIP: My guide to what to buy in Japan goes into detail about traditional souvenirs from Japan, their meanings, and where you can find them.

I’ve also written about the must-have Japanese snacks that need to make it into your suitcase, and how to get Japanese snacks delivered to your door after your trip!

how to use google maps to plan a trip to japan

12. Don’t plan on rushing around to see everything

Compared to other countries like the United States and Australia, Japan seems to be a relatively small island nation where it won’t take long to get around. This is a common misconception!

  1. Japan is quite mountainous in parts meaning public transport options between cities may seem short on a map as the crow flies, but in reality can be several hours away by bus or bullet train. Take this into account when planning out your Japan trip itinerary.
  2. Another common mistake tourists make is underestimating the distance not only between cities but attractions within those cities.

Kyoto is a perfect example where famous must-visit temples such as Fushimi Inari Shrine, Kiyomizu-dera, Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion, and Arashiyama Bamboo Forest are almost on complete opposite sides of the city with limited public transport options between them. The same can be said for many neighborhoods in Tokyo due to the enormity of the city.

TIP: In a nutshell, allow more time than you think you’ll need to enjoy your first time in Japan. I’ve often seen in Japan trip planning forums tourists complaining they’re tired from rushing around and not having enough time. Be realistic by planning your days accordingly to enjoy it all in a relaxing way.

TIP: In a nutshell, allow more time than you think you’ll need to enjoy your first time in Japan at a relaxed pace.

onsen in japan

13. Check if construction work will impact your visit to attractions

This is one of the often overlooked tips for traveling to Japan for the first time. For example, the Grand Torii gate at Miyajima was under wraps for almost 3 years, and some visitors didn’t realize until they got there!

Be sure to take a look if any major construction works here are going to affect sites you wish to see.

TIP: Speaking of Miyajima, it’s a good idea to check the tidal information for the day of your visit. I’ve covered this and more information in my Hiroshima to Miyajima travel guide.

14. Use Google Maps to plan your journeys

Google Maps makes it ridiculously easy to plan your trip to Japan. Not only does it display travel alternatives such as train, bus, car, cycling, walking, and flights. It also goes into detail about the exact train lines, costs, platform, and travel time, too!

TIP: When to use a Suica Card or JR Pass according to the logos displayed in Google Maps? Save my helpful Instagram cheat sheet about it here.

NOTE: You can also try Japan Transit Planner and click the “Hikari” train option if using a JR Pass. Locals also use an app called NaviTime to plan their trips.

Japanese Yen

Important rules regarding oversized luggage on bullet trains

Speaking of planning your journeys, you may need to reserve a seat on the bullet trains with an oversized baggage area, or have your luggage forwarded to your next destination rather than just showing up.

  • With the rise in popularity of tourists using the Japan Rail Pass on the Tokaido-Sanyo-Kyushu shinkansen, the trains became very overcrowded and there was not enough room for dozens of huge suitcases.
  • If your suitcase has combined dimensions of over 160cm, you’ll need to reserve your seat on the train in advance. More info from JR Central.

TIP: Alternatively, you can forward your luggage to your next hotel using Yamato Transport for a fee (approx JPY 4200). This can be done at your hotel’s reception, it usually takes 24 hours but can be arranged for same-day delivery depending on the area.

15. Create a pre-planned Japan itinerary that allows some flexibility (or use mine!)

I absolutely love being a Japan itinerary planner! There are many destinations where it’s possible to just “wing it” as a traveler, but with its many complexities Japan isn’t really one of them.

You’ll be more confident and make the most of your trip by being prepared and having some flexibility in your itinerary.

If you don’t have the time to create a detailed yet flexible itinerary for Japan of your own, never fear as I’ve done all the hard yards for you! Follow my detailed Japan itineraries and travel guides that outline things to do, how to get around, where to stay, Japan travel tips, and more. I’ve got you covered every step of the way!

Driving from Nagoya to Gujo Hachiman

16. Include both traditional and modern experiences in your tour of Japan

As I bang on about in many of my Japan itinerary planning guides, this country is able to blend past and present together in an incredibly seamless way. It’s quite amazing! To make the most of your visit ensure you add both modern and traditional experiences to your Japan travel guide itinerary.

My mini-list below shares Japan travel ideas to get you started. Remember experiences in Japan certainly aren’t limited to only these:

Traditional Japanese experiences

  • Witnessing a sumo wrestling tournament
  • Hiking pilgrimage routes such as Kumano Kodo on the Kii Peninsula
  • Paying respect at temples and shr

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