Going to Japan? Great! It's a wonderful place for traveling. I imagine this isn’t the only resource you'll be looking at for your trip, which is great! This is to supplement things touched on in every other travel guide. These are things I love that I've found through my years traveling all across Japan. Primarily places I've been, but also places that I've been recommended or found in my research. Thanks for reading!
If you have any suggestions or want to tell me about places you went to based off this list, please email me at KRMRjapan@gmail.com
Absolutely get data for a smartphone. I've traveled to Japan in a time before widespread access to maps on your cell phone, and being able to pull up a map and type where you need to go in English is a bigger life saver than you would realize. Worth every penny. Not to mention translation apps are pretty amazing these days. There are SIM cards for sale at the airport, that information is always changing, do a web search to get the latest info.
WHEN TO GO
Short answer: The beginning of spring is the best time, summer is the worst. Long answer:
Early spring: (end of March/beginning of April) can be the best time to go because, while still pretty chilly at times, the weather is warming up nicely and cherry blossoms are in full effect. Japan comes alive for cherry blossoms, countless people picnic with their friends under the trees (this is called hanami), there are festivals in parks, and the blossoms are cute as hell! However, for these reasons, this has become one of the busiest times to visit Japan and in recent years I've seen some insane crowds. These crowds also make travel and lodging more expensive. Here's a cherry blossom tracker to check out.
Summer: (June to mid-September) Hot, humid, rainy, and plenty of cicadas. If you're from the American suburbs and are used to constantly being in air conditioning, you're probably not prepared. However, summer is peak festival season and Japanese festivals are simply one of the best things to do, see the festival section below.
Fall: (September to December) The weather can be quite nice and the fall leaves can be nothing short of breath-taking. Gingko trees are fairly prevalent, especially in Tokyo, and their bright yellow leaves in the fall are spectacular.
Winter: (December to March) Most of the country can get below freezing during the winter months, with snowfall heaviest on the northern coasts and the mountains. Winter sports are fantastic, especially in Nagano and Hokkaido. And nothing beats slurping a warm bowl of ramen when it's cold out.
Eat all the foods! Japanese food is incredible, and there are so many dishes that you'll never find in other countries. Looking up "the best sushi" or "best restaurant in Shibuya" will probably give you a great experience, but might also require a lot of planning and scheduling.
I recommend asking the staff or hosts of wherever you’re staying for food recommendations in the area. People in Japan love to eat and usually know the best spots to eat in the neighborhood. Many of my best meals in Japan have come from local recommendations.
There are so many amazing places to eat throughout Japan, and I've had a lot of success just walking into restaurants that I happen across. That said, in recent years, due to the huge increase in foreign tourism to Japan, I've seen more and more "Japanese Only" signs, or "oops we're closing early right now." When a half-dozen or so loud, non-Japanese speaking people show up to a restaurant, you might be turned away a few times. But be flexible, this isn't pervasive, and there are an absurd amount of other restaurants throughout the country.
Resources: Tabelog.com is a great resource for looking for food throughout Japan. You can search for the best yakitori place in Nagoya, or the top 3 lunch spots in a specific neighborhood in Tokyo. The site's users are pretty discerning, so 3 stars out of 5 is pretty good, 4 is out of this world.
Look up what festivals are going on while you're there! They are so incredibly fun and are teeming with "only in Japan" experiences. Summer is generally festival season, but there are still plenty of festivals throughout the year. Since they are typically based on Shinto traditions, there will often be taiko drum performances, shrine parades, and traditional dance. Not to mention, plenty of great food stalls that can give you a huge offering of different foods that you generally can’t find outside of Japan, and some you won’t see outside of the festival. Many festivals have a theme or gimmick, there are horseback archery festivals (yabusame), shrine street races, penis festivals, etc. They are locally run, and in some cities most neighborhoods will have their own annual matsuri.
Resources: Japan Guide
Japanese convenience stores are in another league. Snacks, meals, baseball tickets, full kitchens, and mooore! I highly recommend popping in at least once. Keep an eye out for fun, limited edition flavors of snacks. Each chain is a bit different from the rest, check them all out! There's 7-11, Lawson, Family Mart, Mini-Stop, Daily Yamazaki, and more.
I've eaten many meals from convenience stores and they can be great! I highly recommend rice balls/onigiri. Family Mart is famous for their "FamiChiki," chicken fried fresh in each store, and it's damn good.
If you happen to get lost, I recommend going to a convenience store and asking the staff for some directions. They often have huge maps of the neighborhood under the counter and may be able to point you in the right direction.
Japan has been a cash first society for a very long time. Getting change for virtually any denomination you have is rarely an issue (I've only really had issues breaking large bills in taxis). Don't be afraid to break a ¥10,000 bill (the equivalent of a$100 bill) when you buy a ¥200 candy at 7-11, but don't be surprised when the tiny ramen shop looks at you like you're crazy.
But card is becoming more widely accepted, especially at retail shopping stores. It's also common to pay for things with a transit tap card at vending machines, shops in train stations and often nearby.
Don't expect to always be able to rely on ATMs in Japan. Many don't accept foreign cards of any kind, and even more close down at night. The most reliable place to find one that you can use would be at convenience stores.
Most of the time the ¥ symbol for yen will not precede prices, instead they will use the Japanese character 円 (pronounced “en”) at the end. So, for example, something that costs 100 yen, will be displayed at a shop as 100円 most of the time. ¥100 is not rare to see, just uncommon. It all means the same thing.
There are six Grand Sumo Tournaments held every year in Tokyo (January, May, and September). Others are in Osaka (March), Nagoya (July), and Fukuoka (November). I highly recommend going, it’s pretty spectacular!
A lot of guides will give you a laundry list of cultural do’s and don’ts for Japan, but in reality, as long as you aren’t some loud asshole, you’ll be fine. If you skip the next couple paragraphs about social cues, you’ll probably be fine.
English is not widely spoken throughout the country, especially outside of Tokyo. However, due in part to a significant rise in tourism over the past decade, signs will frequently have English translations underneath, and a lot of the staff in high traffic tourist areas will have some English proficiency.
I know that a lot of people get anxious at not being able to communicate or even remotely comprehend the written language when traveling. But I'm here to tell you, you're gonna do fine, and you're gonna have the time of your life.
Japan is dense, complicated, and likely very different from where you're from. So you are going to get lost, and that's okay. People can be very helpful and accommodating if you are lost or need help. But don't just speak English at people and hope they understand you. Learn some simple transactional Japanese, use a translation app, or try hand gestures. Just don't miss the last train.
There is zero tipping in Japan. You'll read about a few exceptions, you will likely never run into those exceptions, I never have.
Be aware that there are virtually no public trash cans around town. Most people simply carry their own trash with them and toss it at home. If you’ve got trash you want to get rid of, find a vending machine or convenience store, they typically have trash or recycle bins you can dispose your stuff in. This may be strange for Americans, as we loooove to walk and eat or drink and throw away that plastic at the next street corner. Here it's considered strange to walk around town while eating or drinking, people will likely stare at you. If you buy something at a vending machine or at a convenience store, the norm is to consume it right then and there, or save it for later.
Cigarette smoking in Japan is pretty common, but it's becoming more restricted each year. Just like eating and drinking, it's considered weird to walk and smoke. Many cities and neighborhoods have banned smoking on their public sidewalks, especially in large cities like Tokyo, Kyoto, etc. There are often designated smoking areas that are clearly marked. Smoking indoors is banned in many places, but you'll likely still encounter places where someone is smoking in a bar or cafe.
I recommend Americans speak quieter than you usually do in public places. We are some of the loudest people on Earth, it's brash and can put people on edge. Look around you and match whatever volume the locals are talking at. This is something to think about especially when riding on trains since it's considered rude to even talk on the phone on a train in Japan. You don’t have to whisper, just be mindful.
You likely already know that you take your shoes off when entering a Japanese home, this is also true of various other places like schools and more traditional restaurants. It will be abundantly clear when you need to do so because there will be a pile of shoes (or shoe lockers) at the entrance. There will likely be someone there politely telling you where to put your shoes.
A big deal is made out of slurping soup and noodles. Travel guides commonly say that slurping shows “appreciation for the chef.” But the chef usually can’t see or hear you...they don't care. People slurp their noodles because that’s just what they do, it cools food off a little bit, but there’s no real reason behind it. No one will care if you don’t slurp, if anything people will be amazed at how you accomplished such a thing.
Japan is incredibly safe, safer than anywhere else I've been. Generally speaking, most people will feel safe walking the streets of Tokyo at any hou., But like anywhere else, harassment very much exists. So long as you keep common sense about you, you’ll be perfectly fine.
Prepare to do a lot of walking, transit is extensive, but doesn't take you to the doorstep of everywhere you want to go. But that's a good thing! Walking around Japanese cities is a delight, they're incredibly dense. In the span of a few blocks you'll pass a wide variety of shops, restaurants, parks, arcades, cafes, book shops, vending machines, and so much more. My favorite thing to do in Japan is to pick a neighborhood and walk around without any plans, using my maps can help facilitate that!
Japan has a ridiculously extensive public transport network. You can get to almost anywhere you want to go using public transit. There are some exceptions, notably the northern island of Hokkaido, here it's recommended to rent a car if you're venturing far outside of Sapporo.
Since the entire transit system is fairly extensive and complex, it can also be terribly confusing. Tokyo alone has hundreds of lines that are run by dozens of different companies. Even being able to understand and read Japanese hasn't saved me from boarding the wrong train. Luckily major signage is also in English and the staff is incredibly helpful. So while it’s inevitable that you’ll get lost, you won’t be lost for long. Plan your trip ahead of time. Google Maps works pretty well, but for anything more complicated than going from one major city to another, I recommend using Jorudan.
Here's a great video from Johnny Harris that goes over transit in Tokyo with info that applies to much of the rest of the country as well.
If you're out on the town late at night, be sure to figure out when the last train is, you need to catch it. If you miss the last train, taking a taxi will likely be your next move. However, they can get incredibly expensive if you're on the other side of town from where you need to be. But if you end up taking one, it's a great experience, most feel like they just rolled off the factory floor in 1984.
"Ride share" apps like Uber do exist, but aren't a cheaper alternative to taxis like in many other countries. As I understand it, Uber simply calls you a taxi, which can be more convenient than hailing one on the street.
From the Airport
You’re probably flying into Narita Airport, which is about an hour outside of Tokyo. There are a few express trains that will take you to various parts of the city, but the best one will depend on your destination. Your lodging should supply that info on what is the best one to take into the city. There are a number of different train companies with somewhat similar names operating on the same platforms, so be very mindful of where you're going and which train you're taking at the airport. Remember, there will be ample signage in English.
You can buy train tickets at virtually every train station in the country, and electronic kiosks will have an English option. Larger stations will also have a window with a ticket agent that may be able to help you plan your route. Trains can get pretty pricey, as prices are based on distance. So plan your route ahead of time. A tip to help keep train costs down, try to avoid transferring between transport companies while you're in Tokyo (if possible).
JR Rail Pass
Many travelers feel like they have to buy the JR Rail Pass. I recommend waiting until you've figured out exactly which cities you plan to visit. Price out how much each of those train tickets will cost, and compare that to the price of the Rail Pass. The Rail Pass is more expensive than it used to be (which is understandable because it was a ridiculously good deal for such a long time), so your trip might not actually benefit from purchasing one.
If you decide to get one, traveling around by JR trains is pretty dang easy. Note that it doesn't work on metro/subway systems. All Shinkansen (bullet train) stations will have large ticket offices, often with dedicated English speaking staff who specialize in helping you plan your route from A to B.
There are also regional rail passes, like ones specifically for the island of Kyushu or the northern region of Tohoku. If you're doing most of your train travel in just one region, it may be cheaper to just get that region's rail pass.
Good luck. There's the Tokyo Metro, The Toei Subway, Japan Rail, and hundreds of other smaller operators. Google Maps is pretty good at giving you directions throughout the metropolis. Outside of Tokyo it's not as reliable if you're doing a lot of transfers, but it's a good way to find major stations. Jorudan, while sometimes overkill, is likely the most accurate way to get train info.
Keep in mind that there are above ground trains as well as subways. The Yamanote loop line in Tokyo (green trains) runs around the greatest hits of the city. Try your best to find a place to stay near there.
I recommend avoiding buses in Tokyo, 99% of the information is exclusively in Japanese and the system is even more confusing than the rail system.
To make the ticket buying process a little easier, buy a transit card (IC Card) that you can pre-load with cash to pay for tickets. You simply tap your card at the ticket gate when you enter, then again when you exit and the correct fare will be deducted from your card. There are two cards in Tokyo for some reason, Passmo and Suica, they both work exactly the same and work everywhere. Every region of the country has their own card, with different names, but these days they all work everywhere.
As mentioned before, you can even use them to buy food and drinks at some convenience stores and vending machines. This video and this video will show you how to buy and use the cards if you want to get one.
NOTE: As of mid-2023, there has been a shortage of IC chips and the sale of Passmo and Suica cards has been suspended until further notice. You can instead purchase a "Welcome Suica," made specifically for tourists and only available at Narita and Haneda airports. More info here. There's also the "Passmo Passport." More info here.
You can still buy IC cards outside of Tokyo, such as the ICOCA Card in Osaka or the Kitaca Card in Hokkaido. Also, you can use your phone to tap onto transit with Apple Pay, Google Pay, and more. Look up online how best to do that on your phone.
I first went to Japan in 2010 when I moved to Fuji City for a year, a place with so little to do that I left every chance I got and explored so much of the rest of Japan. I’ve returned countless times and have found so many favorite places. This guide is born out of recommendations I’ve been giving my friends for over a decade. The goal of this guide is to share those places, but also to set you up to explore and find an experience all your own.
Please contact me if you have any suggestions! I'd absolutely love to hear from you if you've used this list for your trip. Does something no longer exist? Was somewhere even better than I let on? Let me know!
Email me at KRMRjapan@gmail.com