1st January 2022

PLANNING A TRIP TO JAPAN: EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW!

Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post (however affiliate links may be used, including Amazon Associates, which mean I earn commissions on purchases at no extra cost to you) and all thoughts are my own.

Fantastic, you’re planning a trip to Japan! If you’re anything like me, underneath the excitement, there’s an underlying current of anxiety. Maybe I’d just read all the wrong articles before arriving in Japan, but I was fearmongered into thinking that planning a trip to Japan would be difficult, exhausting and overwhelming. Thankfully, that’s not the case – especially if you follow this guide!

Deer of Nara outside a shrine, Japan

When to Visit Japan

Spring

Spring is the most popular time of year to visit Japan, and for good reason! If you time your trip right, you can witness “Sakura”, the annual cherry blossom season. The cherry trees start blooming in the South, slowly working their way northwards before most of the country is covered in the beautiful pink blossom. Like a weather forecast, there are annual cherry blossom forecasts in Japan! The dates become more accurate as Spring draws closer – see here for the 2022 forecast. Of course, with popularity comes increased prices and busyness, so if you want to visit in Spring, be sure to book early and start saving your well-earned pennies!

Summer

Summers in Japan are extremely hot and humid. Travelling in busy cities in such intense levels of humidity can be extremely uncomfortable. We visited Japan at the end of September (which I wouldn’t necessarily class as “Summer”) and we still had issues with humidity – while we were trying to climb up the Torii Gates in Kyoto, we were absolutely dripping in sweat – it was not pleasant!

The Summer months are also home to Japan’s rainy season with June and July taking the lead for the highest rainfall levels statistically. August and September bring typhoon season, which shouldn’t impact your trip but you should be aware of weather warnings and be sensible. During our travels (September 2019), Typhoon Hagibis was raging through the sea heading towards Japan. We weren’t impacted by the Typhoon at all (other than increased humidity levels). However, after our departure, Typhoon Hagibis reached the mainland and became the most destructive typhoon Japan has seen in decades.

Autumn

If you want to see the trees looking beautiful but don’t want to pay the prices or experience the crowds that Sakura brings in the Spring, Autumn is a great alternative. In Autumn, the country’s expansive green areas become filled with leaves in golds, yellows and oranges.

September and October still have warm temperatures, which drop slightly in November. But a trip to Japan in November is still likely to have lots of sunny days, albeit with cooler temperatures. Autumn is therefore a great time to visit Japan!

Winter

While Winter’s in Japan can be extremely chilly, there are a few undeniable advantages to travelling to Japan in Winter. You’ll get to feel the full benefit of the onsens (more on that later!), you’ll get to experience Japan without hoards of tourists, you’re in for a chance of spotting a snow-capped Mount Fiji, and the North becomes a playground for avid skiers and snowboarders!

Girl in Cedar WOod Avenue, Hakone, Japan

Planning Your Japanese Itinerary

Japan is filled to the brim with things to see and do. One of the hardest parts of planning a trip to Japan is creating a shortlist of destinations that fit within your timeframe! Unless you have unlimited time to spend in Japan, you won’t be able to see everything, so you need to work out what your priorities are.

If you love the bright lights of city life, you might just focus on Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. If you are interested in modern history, Hiroshima would be a great addition to your itinerary. If you want to step back further in time and see hundreds of beautiful Japanese temples, maybe consider Takayama and Nara. If you are looking for the thrill of a good rollercoaster, you can’t miss out on Tokyo Disneyland, Tokyo Disney Sea and Universal Studios Japan. If you want to take the thrill level up a notch and are interested in skiing/snowboarding, then the northern prefectures are the place to be… the list goes on and on!

Your perfect itinerary could be completely different to someone else’s depending on your interests, but here’s what I think is the perfect itinerary filled with a mix of time in both cities and rural areas.

Hakone, Japan oramge Torii shrine

Buying Your Train Pass and Booking Your Seats

Do you need a Rail Pass?

Japan has a fantastic rail pass system (the JR Rail Pass) for foreigners travelling through the country. Typically, passes are for a set period (7 days, 14 days or 21 days) and provide you with unlimited rail travel during that period.

While many travellers do purchase a JR Rail Pass, there are a number of situations that may mean the pass is not advantageous for you, including:

  1. You aren’t taking many long-haul train journeys, so purchasing the individual tickets is cheaper than purchasing the pass.
  2. You are taking a guided group tour which already includes the JR Rail Pass within the price, such as this fantastic G Adventures 14 Day Itinerary.
  3. You will be taking train journies which are not covered by the JR rail pass (yes, that’s right, the pass doesn’t inlcude all trains within the country – including the Nozomi shinkansen which is the very fastest style of bullet train and inner-city trains such as the underground system in Tokyo)

How to purchase the Japan Rail Pass

More details, including prices and a link to purchase your pass (which needs to be purchased before you arrive in Japan), can be found on the official website. Upon purchasing your pass, you will be sent a voucher in the post, it is extremely important that you remember to pack this paperwork!

On arrival in Japan, you will need to visit a JR Ticket Office to exchange the voucher for the official pass. At JR Ticket Offices, you can also book seats on your chosen trains – but we will discuss that later!

Planning Which Trains You Want To Take

If you’re planning to see and do a lot in a short space of time (like we were), you should plan which trains you want to take before you arrive in Japan. Before we arrived in Japan, I knew the exact date, time, train number and sometimes even the platform that the train will depart from(!) of each train we planned to catch.

While this sounds super restrictive, there are a number of great benefits:

  1. When you collect your JR rail pass, you can ask the ticket agent to give you a booking for every single train during your trip. While Japan is lightyears ahead in some aspects of technology, being able to book your seats online is sadly not am option. Some of the train stations are an absolute maze and knowing that you already have your seat booking saves a lot of time! The one time we didn’t get on our pre-booked train, we had to stand for a few hours as there were no seats remaining.
  2. If you do change your mind, there are no penalties or fines for changing your booking at a later date.
  3. If you know the exact train number and the name of the train (they all have slightly different names), it makes navigating the train station and working out which platform you need to be at much easier. I became super reliant on being able to recognise the train names/numbers as they sped into the station!

Luckily, planning your train routes is super easy – you can use the HyperDia website or app to pick up all of the relevant info. This website will become your best friend during the course of your trip!

Girl in mountains on Alpine Route, Japan

Choosing Which Hotels To Book

Normally, I am completely unfused by hotels – as long as there is a clean and safe space for me to sleep, then I’m happy! However, Japan is one of the few countries where the choice of hotel excited me. There’s a wide range of options to choose from and we tried to book into as many different types as possible!

Unfortunately, as we were travelling at the time of the 2019 Rugby World Cup being hosted in Japan, we really struggled to find some interesting hotels which either had availability or were within our budget. If you are travelling during peak seasons, be sure to book as early as possible to avoid disappointment!

Capsule Hotels

Capsule hostels are extremely popular in Japan, and Japan has become pretty famous for them. Originally aimed at people travelling on business, capsule hotels have a number of single beds (normally stacked above one another) each with 4 walls surrounding the bed providing a basic but private place to sleep.

Generally, male and female dorms are in separate sections of a hostel, and you are required to store your belongings in a locker. In some more traditional hotels, you will also be given a set of pyjama-like clothes to wear when moving around the hotel.

As capsule hotels have become ever-increasingly popular with tourists who want to see what the phenomenon is all about, the style of the capsules has become more modern. Some capsules include TVs, their own heating system and other mod-cons!

We found the prices of capsule hostels to be absolutely through the roof during our stay, so we opted for Guesthouse Azito in Hakone which is slightly different to the traditional capsule hostels. While it isn’t a standard capsule hostel, it’s a great budget option. The pods are wooden and the dorm room feels like a giant treehouse! We opted for a double bed pod which isn’t available in most traditional capsule hostels (normally dorms aren’t mixed-gender, let alone beds!). The staff were super friendly and we were offered a free alcoholic welcome drink on arrival – I definitely recommend it if you’re looking for somewhere cheap, cheerful and a bit different!

Roykans

Ryokans are inns where you can experience a traditional Japanese way of life. The floors are made from tatami (a wooden/straw-like flooring) and you are likely to be asked to remove your shoes before entering the hotel. On entering your room, you’re unlikely to be blown away by the array of furniture. Most ryokans have two set-ups which are changed for you by the hotel staff – one being a futon for sleeping on, and another being a low table arrangement to eat your meals at.

If you want a really traditional experience, you are able to stay in some temples, which usually have the same decor style as ryokans but with the added bonus of morning prayer or chant with the resident monks.

We ended up booking a stay at Takayama Ouan – a ryokan with a modern twist. While the floor of the hotel is still made of straw-like material (you have to leave your shoes in a locker at reception), the walls were not paper-thin and the bed is somewhat raised from the ground. Modern amenities were in the room such as a TV and there was no need to convert your room from a dining area to a bedroom, both areas were available at all times. The hotel was lovely and the rooftop private onsens were a real treat. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay here and would highly recommend making a booking. However, we would like to try a more traditional ryokan too if we were to return to Japan!

Onsens

Many hotels feature onsens – public baths heated by the country’s hot springs. Like capsule hotels, there are usually a number of restrictions on who can use onsens (for example, men and women are separated and tattoos are usually prohibited). I certainly wasn’t comfortable with being completely naked (yes, that’s how you need to enter an onsen!) in front of strangers, so we opted for hotels with private onsens (like that of Takayama Ouan) which would also allow Callum’s tattoos to be on show.

Themed Hotels (and Love Hotels!)

Mainly available in large cities, these Japanese themed hotels are filled with amusement-park like decor and definitely make for a unique experience! If you’re not travelling as a couple, make sure you don’t accidentally book a Love Hotel (which usually also have fun themes!) Love Hotels in Japan are frequented by couples who want to do… coupley-things. Rooms usually have an hourly rate (as well as nightly) and some provide interesting facilities and room service options…

While we didn’t have the chance to experience any themed hotels, here’s my shortlist of options (PG/family friendly!):

Manga Kissa Internet Cafes

Manga Kissa Internet Cafes are a particularly unusual sleeping option – Internet cafes usually have small cubicles which come equipped with a reclining chair, blanket, pillows and a computer. While they are intended for business travellers needing to stay somewhere cheap by a train station while working or Japanese teenagers who want somewhere to rent and read comic books, curious tourists have begun using these facilities – it sounds like quite the experience!

Standard Options

Of course, all of the “standard” options you are used to are also available (hotels, hostels apartments, AirBnB etc.). For the most part, we booked normal hotel rooms via Booking.com.

Be warned that hotel rooms in Japan can be extremely small, especially in the bigger cities. If you are travelling with a lot of luggage, you may want to upgrade your room (if possible)! Our hotel booking was Hilton Tokyo Hotel which was booked with loyalty points and the room was HUGE – we were absolutely spoilt for our first stay! Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay there for our entire stay in Tokyo, so we moved to Hotel Rose Garden which was clean and well located, but the room was at absolutely maximum capacity once we were both in there with our luggage!

Some other hotels that we stayed in – all of which were clean, well located and safe:

Matsumoto Castle, Japan

Pre-Booking Popular Activities

One key thing to do while planning a trip to Japan is to double-check whether any activities you’re interested in need pre-booking. We had two experiences pre-booked before our arrival:

  1. The Pokemon Cafe – Reservations at this popular cafe book up fast, so be sure to pre-book before your arrival. You are able to book up to 31 days in advance of your visit. My other-half is Pokemon mad, so this was a non-negotiable for our trip!
  2. The Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route – If you want to escape the hustle and bustle of the cities, the Alpine Route is a great option. This was a non-negotiable for me after being subject to the Pokemon Cafe ;-).

Depending on your interests, there are a number of other activities that you may need to pre-book before your arrival, such as:

  1. Sumo wrestling matches – The national sumo tournament is held only 6 times a year and is extremely popular.
  2. Studio Ghibli Museum – This is an extremely coveted attraction and demand usually outwighs the number of tickets available.
Girl with rainbow candyfloss in Harajuku, Tokyo

Choosing Where To Eat

Obviously, choosing where to eat in Japan doesn’t need to be done before you arrive. In fact, I highly recommend not planning anything and just stumbling into wherever is closest to you at any given time! However, there are a few cuisines which you absolutely have to try.

Lots of restaurants in Japan serve one speciality (like the ones listed below), so we made a conscious effort to try and find a different style of restaurant each evening (of course, sometimes going back to the styles which we loved the most)! We ended up with a checklist on our phones to remember everything we wanted to try!

Some of our favourites were:

As with hotels, “themed” restaurants are also available! We only tried the Pokemon Cafe in Tokyo, which was fun but definitely the worst quality food we ate, yet the most expensive! See here for a list of other options you can try (please note that I do not condone cafes that contain live animals for human entertainment).

Kinkaku-ji gold shrine, Kyoto, Japan

The Boring Neccessities (Visas, Insurance, Internet etc.)

Visa

Many nationalities do not require a visa to enter Japan for less than 90 days, but be sure to check your country’s specific requirements before booking your trip – not realising you have to pay for an expensive visa can be a nasty shock! You may be questioned by immigration officers if you don’t have a return flight or transport arranged to leave Japan.

Vaccinations and Travel Insurance

Make sure you are up to date with your routine vaccinations (diphtheria, polio etc.) and consider whether you need to have any further vaccines to travel to Japan. If you haven’t travelled extensively previously, it’s likely that you will need to get the Hepatitis B jab. The CDC recommendations can be found here and ensure you seek medical advice before travel.

Medical treatment in Japan is expensive, so ensure that you have sufficient insurance to cover your trip.

Internet

If you’re happy to rely on WiFi when in hotels, then you can skip past this stage. However, having an internet connection when on the road in Japan is extremely helpful. For me, I liked being able to see train times if we decided not to catch the train we originally planned to or look up things to do in the local area/access Google Maps. For Callum, he liked being able to constantly play Pokemon Go (which is a huge phenomenon in Japan – we had many Japanese people stop us to try and speak to Callum when they saw him playing the game).

You can hire a “pocket WiFi” device or buy a 4G sim card (if your phone is unlocked) for use throughout your trip. We pre-booked the hire of a Pocket WiFi to pick up from Tokyo airport on arrival which came with a pre-paid envelope for us to post the device back when we were finished with it.

International Driving Permit (required for go-karting)

While there’s a slim chance that you will be hiring a car in Japan (why would you when the trains are so great?), if you plan to try one of the famous “Mario Kart” go-karting experiences on the streets of one of Japan’s cities, you will need to have an International Driving Permit.

In the UK, you can get a 3-year International Driving Permit for around £5.50 over-the-counter at Post Offices if you are a UK resident, are over the age of 18 and have a full driving licence. More information can be found here.

While the photos of this activity look great, we opted not to participate given the ethical issues at stake – including but not limited to alleged fury from Japanese locals for blocking up their roads and the legal battles between the various tour operators and Nintendo. Instead, you might prefer the Mario Kart experience at Super Nintendo World within Universal Studios Japan!

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