Wonder how to plan a trip to Japan? If you don’t know where to start, or how to plan a trip to Japan, you have come to the right place.
Planning a trip to Japan, a country with a completely different culture, an unintelligible language, and several stretched-out megacities, can be a little overwhelming.
But let me reassure you immediately, it is very easy to travel independently in this country.
Japanese are welcoming, helpful, and well-organized. You will find yourself at home in this country in no time.
In this Japan travel blog post, we will explain step by step how to get started with your Japan trip planning.
We share a lot of travel tips for Japan, how to get to the country of the rising sun, where to stay, all of the best things to do for first-timers, and everything else you need to know to craft a perfect holiday.
We have some example itineraries to get you started, we will cover what to pack and the best travel time.
We also mapped some things against a timeline so you know how far in advance you should take care of some of the more important things.
This step-by-step guide is also handy if you are only planning a trip to Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka.
Ready? Let’s start working on this amazing Japan trip!
How to plan a trip to Japan
A good item to start your planning with is to record your travel period. Once you’ve decided on a certain period you can start looking for flights.
Below is an overview of the different seasons in Japan with the pros and cons of each season.
Best time to travel to Japan
Japan is a long and narrow, stretched-out country. It has a mountainous region in the North that attracts skiers in winter. The Southern island of Okinawa is a popular beach location and scuba divers are raving about its untouched colorful underwater world.
The most popular tourist hotspots of Tokyo and Kyoto are located between those two regions.
The best time to travel to Japan obviously depends on your interests and the region you want to visit.
We would advise against traveling in Summer because the cities are very hot and humid in this season.
The Sakura is a bonus of traveling in Spring, the cherry blossoms are an attraction in and by themselves.
Here are some more details about the different seasons.
Spring is an excellent season to visit Japan. Certainly, if you can arrange your plans to coincide with the so-called Sakura, the famous cherry blossoms.
The cherry trees start blooming in the South of Japan and gradually transform the entire country into a colorful floral display.
The northern peninsula of Hokkaido is the last to showcase its beautiful colors.
It’s difficult to predict exactly when the flowers will bloom.
You can check the predictions and forecasts on the site of the Japanese tourist board and the Japanese Meteorological Corporation. The predictions become more accurate as the date approaches and they’re not really useful at this stage of your travel planning.
We witnessed this glorious natural phenomenon in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka.
The cherry blossoms attract huge numbers of people all over the country, the Japanese even organize Hanami in the parks. (A Hanami is a flower-viewing party)
You can see cherry blossoms all over the world, but the atmosphere in Japan during this time of year is one you won’t find anywhere else.
The Sakura blossoms draw in large crowds, so this is a busy and somewhat more expensive time to travel to Japan.
Right after the Sakura Season is another busy travel week, the “Golden Week”. It is formed by 4 national holidays, the first of which is Emperor day on April 29. The other days are Constitution day on May 3, Greenery day on May 4, and Children’s day on May 5.
Many Japanese take advantage of this period to explore their own country, which makes the popular tourist attractions much busier than usual. This, in turn, causes the hotel rates to increase as well.
Temperatures will range from 15 degrees Celcius to 25 degrees Celcius. In March and April, you may experience an occasional shower, during May it starts raining more often and more heavily.
Insider tip: Is this your first Japan trip and are you feeling a bit overwhelmed about planning this trip, what to see, and to do in Japan. Check out our Japan travel planner. This document will help you plan your trip smoothly.
Summers in Japan are warm with temperatures that often exceed 30 degrees Celsius. The humidity makes the wind chill even higher and unenjoyable if you’re not used to tropical climates.
The cities are unavoidably crowded and the combination of this bustling activity and such a high temperature can make exploring these concrete jungles a lot less comfortable.
June and July statistically know the most rainfall. This applies to most of the country, only the northern peninsula of Hokkaido is mainly spared from the downpours.
The rainy season starts and ends a month earlier in Okinawa where most rainfall is measured in the months of May and June.
It doesn’t rain every day in the rainy season. Some days are dry, while some days have light rain and other days come with massive downpours.
It’s difficult to predict, but as a rule of thumb, one can say that it will rain roughly every other day.
Even after the rainy season has come to an end the weather remains hot and humid.
The official typhoon season starts in May, but the typhoons that can disrupt everyday life are most common in the months of August and September.
Only a few severe storms reach the Japanese mainland and the storms are also very predictable. This means that it is not necessary to avoid this period. It’s sufficient to watch the weather forecast to know when you shouldn’t go outside.
That being said, heavy rainfall does have the potential to cripple public transportation, while temples and amusement parks sometimes close during strong winds or sudden floods.
Many Natsumatsuri are organized in Summer.
A Natsumatsuri is a summer festival. It’s a cause for Japanese women to get their colorful Yukata out of the closet. Huge crowds gather around the food and drink stalls and watch the fireworks together.
If you’re in Japan during Summer you must definitely join these celebrations.
Fall is another great time to travel to Japan.
Japan is home to many expansive parks and forests, and the fall colors transform them into a gorgeous and colorful palette.
The fall foliage craze is no match for the popularity of the Sakura but that couldn’t stop the Japanese from giving it a special word: Koyo.
The best period to admire the amazing Koyo colors depends on the weather conditions and the location. Japan is fairly big and the peak period differs significantly between the different regions.
The website of the Japanese government has an Autumn leaves guide. You can track the Koyo predictions just like you can track the cherry blossoms.
Autumn temperatures start around 26 degrees Celcius. When you visit Japan in October, you’ll normally still be able to enjoy pleasant temperatures that exceed 20 degrees Celsius. During the month of November, the temperature drops below 20 degrees Celcius to 15 degrees Celcius.
Although November is a bit cooler, it still counts plenty of sunny days to enjoy.
Winter announces the low season in most parts of Japan. Only Hokkaido, with its many ski resorts, experiences a peak in tourism during this season.
Temperatures in Hokkaido range around 0 degrees Celcius. In central and South Japan it is around 10 degrees Celcius.
Some melting snow may fall in Tokyo during January and February, but the snow typically doesn’t stick around very long.
The Japanese brighten up these cold months with various winter festivals featuring ice sculptures and fairytale-like lights. The most famous of those is the Sapporo Snow Festival.
Start with your Japan Trip Planning
Once you know when you will be traveling you can start working on your Japan itinerary but let us first take a moment to talk about the budget.
Japan trip cost
Japan is not the cheapest country to explore but some good planning can save you a lot of money. Hotels will take the largest chunk out of your travel budget. You can save a lot of money by booking these several months in advance.
Transportation is the second-largest cost item. Oftentimes you can save on this by using local discount passes or special tourist passes. The most well-known is the Japan Rail Pass but we also cover other passes on our site such as the Tokyo Metro Pass and the Hakone Free Pass.
Food is relatively cheap in Japan. We spent an average of €12 per day per person on food. (That is excluding breakfast which was usually included in our hotel rate)
We go into much more detail about the cost of these 3 items in our Japan Travel Guide.
The timeline for your Japan Trip Planning
1 week in advance
6 months in advance
We recommend that you start looking for flights as soon as your travel dates are fixed. Prices for flights fluctuate continuously and it’s hard to predict when is the best time to buy.
Tickets can be booked one year out until the very last day and over the course of this period, the price follows a stretched-out U curve.
Prices start high to drop gradually to a low point, from there on they start rising again.
Everybody knows it’s expensive to wait until the very last minute but nobody knows the exact low point.
Usually, this is 4 to 6 months out for intercontinental flights. We recommend tracking the price of your flights before you book.
These days such functionalities are available on all major booking sites (some call it price alerts).
Here are some tips to find cheap flights to Japan
- Use travel comparison sites such as Momondo, Skyscanner, and Kayak to instantly compare the prices on hundreds of sites. Direct flights are almost always more expensive.
- Japan has 2 excellent airlines. Japan Airlines (JAL) and All Nippon Airways (ANA). Both are recognized by Skytrax as 5-star airlines for their outstanding service. You will notice that, because of this award, their flights are often more expensive.
- Chinese carriers often offer rock-bottom prices to Japan with a stop in Shanghai or another Chinese hub. We flew with China Eastern and thought the service was equally good as what we have experienced on many other European carriers.
- Japan counts several airports. Make sure to compare prices to all these airports when you’re looking for flights: Narita and Haneda in Tokyo, Kansai and Itami airport in Osaka, and Chubu airport in Nagoya.
- Twice yearly we compare several travel booking sites to see which one offers the best flights. You can check the results here.
Flights to Japan are no longer as expensive as a few years ago but they still take a big chunk out of your budget.
Insurances only cover accidents that occur after taking out and you don’t want to lose this money in case things suddenly turn awry.
Such accidents happen when you least expect them.
We once couldn’t leave on vacation because one of us slipped on an icy terrace and severely bruised an ankle.
Our travel insurance saved us a lot of money back then because it was a complete family trip that needed to be canceled.
Travel Insurance is something that can be overlooked when you prepare for your vacation.
We were glad we had it back then because, in all honesty, we didn’t always think about it before then.
Since then we always make sure that our travel expenses are covered.
Travel Insurance for Japan
Japan is a safe and civilized country. The country has an excellent healthcare system that is free for most residents but the costs for medical treatments can be extremely high for foreigners.
Drawing up a travel insurance policy may seem expensive at first but it can potentially save you a significant sum, significantly more than the small insurance fee.
We explain what to look for in your travel insurance policy here. Don’t just go with the cheapest option, make sure to look at what’s covered and to what amount. Cheaper policies usually come with low limits which can result in high out-of-the-pocket expenses for you.
Most travel insurance policies are usually aimed at residents of a specific country.
Passports and Visas
Most people won’t need a visa when traveling to Japan, at the time of writing residents of 68 countries were exempt from a visa for short-term stays.
If you’re a resident of another country, such as China, the Philippines, or Vietnam amongst others, you will need to apply for a Visa before traveling to Japan.
This may be the hardest part of your Japan trip planning but it’s also the most fun and rewarding part.
A good place to start your travel planning is our Japan Guide. This guide contains a mix of inspirational posts about the country complemented by very practical travel information to help you explore the land of the rising sun.
Our articles will keep you busy for several hours. if you still think you miss something have a look at the wide range of books that Lonely Planet has about Japan.
Tokyo: Japan’s bustling capital is an amazingly fascinating city of which you will never grow tired. You will need 4 to 5 days to get an impression of the various districts. Each district has its own appearance and charm.
Kyoto: Kyoto is most tourists’ favorite. Prepare for temple galore, the city counts no less than 1600 temples. 2 days won’t be enough to visit them all but it should be sufficient to see the highlights of Japan’s cultural capital.
You may want to add a third day if you want to take it easy.
Osaka: Osaka is Kyoto’s neighbor. Both cities are just 30 minutes away by train. Despite it being so close many tourists skip Osaka and only visit Kyoto.
We absolutely loved Osaka, it’s also called Japan’s kitchen, so we strongly recommend reserving 2-days to explore this city.
Hiroshima: A city with a dramatic past. We were touched by the stories in the peace museum and also loved nearby Miyajima with its picturesque floating Torii gate and the free-roaming deer.
Mt. Fuji: Japan’s iconic volcano is a sight for sore eyes. On clear days the mountain can be seen from the capital but you better not count on that to happen.
The snow monkeys: Being animal lovers this was a true highlight of our trip. The best time to see these cute monkeys is in Winter or early Spring when they’re bathing in the onsen. but it’s also fun to see them in Summer or Autumn. You can visit on your own or join a guided tour from Nagano Station.
Check prices and availability:
Snow monkeys tour
Visit an onsen: Living in Japan can be stressful. There long working hours, high work ethic, and also something known as Tatemae which means you must be an upstanding, ideal citizen to everyone except maybe your close family. Japanese like to visit an Onsen to find relief after a stressful day. We also enjoyed the warm water after a full day of walking around in the immense cities.
Robot restaurant: The paramount of Japanese kitsch, you either hate it or you love it. Attending this crazy robot show might be one of the highlights of your trip.
Check prices and availability:
Robot tickets Klook
Kaiseki dinner: The Japanese kitchen is well-balanced and widely known to provide numerous health benefits. A Kaiseki dinner is Japan’s gastronomy at its best. It’s a multi-course meal made of local fresh ingredients presented in a beautiful pleasing way. It’s a real culinary treat.
Kyoto is a great place to do this. The below-mentioned tour combines a guided walk through Gion with a Kaiseiki diner.
Check prices and availability:
Kyoto Evening Gion food tour
A traditional tea ceremony: This is another enjoyable Japanese tradition. It originated in Zen Buddhism and it is bound to strict rules. A lot of places offer tea ceremonies, we suggest doing some homework and not entering the first tea-house you pass. Not all ceremonies are equally good.
This is a well-appreciated tea ceremony in Kyoto.
Check prices and availability:
Kyoto tea ceremony
Stay in a Ryokan: A Ryokan is a traditional Japanese family hotel. Staying in one can be a real treat as the hosts are usually very accommodating and breakfast and dinner are mouth-watering.
The success of Ryokans has attracted larger properties with dozens of rooms but these are nowhere as charming as the small traditional Ryokans where it feels like you’re really a guest staying with the family.
Rent a Kimono: Ideal if you want some great pictures of your trip. Don’t worry that you will stick out, Japanese put on these traditional clothes for all kinds of festive occasions. We counted loads of Japanese that were taking pictures of the cherry blossoms in their colorful Kimonos.
Here is one address in Kyoto where you can rent a kimono for a day.
Check prices and availability:
Example Japan itineraries
Here are some example itineraries. You can copy them exactly or you can use them as a basis to start with.
Hotels in Japan
Accommodation in the larger cities of Japan can be expensive.
Kyoto takes the cake with prices that can reach $800/night and higher for a standard room in a 4-star hotel in the high season.
Prices in Tokyo and Osaka skyrocket as well in peak season, albeit slightly less.
Don’t be put off by these prices. We traveled through Japan during the cherry blossom season an expensive period to be in Japan and paid on average €105/night for our hotels.
We stayed in a combination of Ryokans and 3 or 4-star hotels. All were well-maintained and very clean.
Best Booking Sites for Japan
It’s easy to book the hotels for your trip online. These are the sites we used:
Who doesn’t know Booking.com? What else do I need to say?
Less popular but equally trustworthy is Agoda. Agoda originated in Asia and it will sometimes show better rates for Asian hotels. We also found some Ryokans on Agoda that couldn’t be booked on Booking.com
Apartments and houses
Hotel rooms in Japan can be on the small side. Certainly in the megacities of Tokyo and Osaka.
If you’re traveling with children or friends it might be better to look for an apartment instead. Then renting an apartment or house might be a good alternative. We recommend renting through VRBO, Booking and Airbnb.
And don’t worry, Airbnb is completely legal in Japan.
We already covered ryokans in this article, here are some other options for an original overnight stay in Japan.
As written above a stay in a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese family hotel can be a real treat. In a Ryokan, you sleep on a futon on the floor, believe me when I say that it is much more comfortable than it sounds.
Here you will stay at a temple.
The room is comparable to that found in a ryokan.
A healthy vegetarian dinner is usually included in your stay and we suggest you retire early as you’re also invited to participate in the morning prayers that start at 6 am sharp.
You can also enrich your stay with meditation classes offered by Buddhist monks.
Temples that offer temple stays can be found in Kanazawa and Kyoto but the most popular place by far for this experience is Koyasan. We left our temple a little disappointed, it all felt too touristy and not authentic but your mileage may vary.
Check prices and availabilty:
Check prices and availability:
Capsule hotels, also known as pod hotels, originated in Japan.
They were originally only aiming at busy businessmen that were looking for a place to crash for a few hours.
Many still only cater to men but some now welcome both genders, still strictly separated in separate parts of the hotel.
The capsules in the hotel are usually the size of a bed with just enough space to sit upright. The capsules are stacked side-by-side and are usually two units high. In the capsule is a small TV and power sockets, all other amenities like toilets and showers are communal.
Over the years capsule hotels have become more popular among tourists, on the one hand for the unique experience but backpackers also love them because they’re cheap.
The tourists were the driver for them to start with Woman sections and Kiba hotel in Tokyo now even has pods with a double bed for couples.
Check prices and availability:
Check prices and availability:
What you should know when booking accommodation
- Rooms in Japan tend to be small. Certainly in the major cities. The less you pay the smaller your room will be. In our experience, the price is a good indicator of the size of the room.
- Regardless of whether we stayed in cheap Ibis or Comfort Inn hotels or more expensive Hilton and Marriott properties, our rooms were always spotlessly clean.
- Capsule hotels will require you to check-in and check out every day irrespective of the length of your stay. Your bags will also need to be stored in lockers. Make sure you arrive prepared with all you need for the night in a separate small bag. It’s not really practical if you need to start digging in your suitcase right there.
Getting Around Japan
Now that you know what you will be visiting in Japan it’s time to glue all this together. There are 3 means to get around Japan.
Below is a short summary of the 3 options. Click here for more information.
The train is by far the most convenient way to get around Japan. It’s also the most popular among tourists. Japan’s train network consists of several companies.
The formerly state-run JR is the largest company and also the one to offer the Japan Rail Pass.
This pass is exclusively available to tourists and is often a good way to save on your transportation.
Highway busses offer a cheap alternative for the more expensive trains. Buses are a slower and less comfortable means of transportation but can save a few bucks in your travel budget.
There is a dense network of bus routes operated by several different companies.
Not all companies have an English website, to book buses, it’s best to use the website of Japan Bus Online.
Rental Car or Campers
It’s also possible to rent a car or a van.
While this probably won’t be more affordable than getting around by train it may offer you more flexibility.
Avoid large cities though where your car will be more like a liability than an asset.
These tours are great alternatives if it just won’t succeed to plan your trip or if you rather just enjoy your holiday without needing to worry about all the details.
There is a range of group tours, but there are also tours where you still travel independently according to a pre-organized itinerary.
TourRadar is the place to go for an all-encompassing overview of the available tours.
It is an online marketplace for tour operators.
It shows an overview of all available tours and it avoids having to separately search the website of each tour operator.
You will find tours from popular international household names as well as a broad selection of Japanese niche operators.
They have a very user-friendly website. Several filters allow you to limit the selection to your liking and the reviews can give you a good impression of what to expect from the tour.
Below is an overview of some excellent 5 and 7-day tours that can be found on TourRadar.
3 months in advance
The train is a super-convenient way to get around Japan.
I’m a big fan of car rentals as these give you a lot of freedom during your trip and even I made an exception in Japan.
When planning our Japan trip I carefully checked the train schedules and prices and compared this with what it would cost to rent a car.
Renting a car is not cheap, Japan counts many toll roads and fuel prices are on the high side. What won me over is how easy it was to get everywhere with the trains.
Trains aren’t particularly cheap in Japan either but they run on time and even the most secluded stations seem to be serviced several times a day.
That brings us to the Japan Rail Pass, is it worth buying one or not? The answer is, it depends.
Those rail passes are not cheap. It would be a shame if you draw conclusions too quickly and buy one if you don’t need it. The rail pass makes it easier to travel by train but it’s too expensive to buy it only for comfort.
It’s only really worth buying one if you will save on your tickets or if the difference is marginal.
The efficient Shinkansen that traverse the country in all directions make flights almost unnecessary.
Still, there remain a few locations that are more quickly reached by plane than by train.
Most notably is, of course, Okinawa, an island south of Japan’s main island that can only be reached by boat or plane. Another journey, which is also faster by plane, goes to Hokkaido. The island is north of Japan’s main island. It’s possible to ride the Shinkansen to Sapporo but the aircraft on average cuts the travel time in half.
Japan counts a wide range of low-cost carriers. You have Jetstar, Peach Aviation, Vanilla Air, and Fuji Dream Airlines to name just a few. The prices for the flights are usually very good thanks to this fierce competition.
There’s also no need to book these flights long in advance.
Somewhere between 3 months and 3 weeks in advance should be OK unless you are looking for flights in peak travel periods like Golden Week.
1 month in advance
A local SIM card or a Pocket Wifi device is an invaluable asset if you would like to discover Japan independently.
We did use our phones intensively to avoid getting lost, to find local restaurants, and to check the train or subway schedule.
There is a whole range of other apps that can help you to travel deeper.
We cover the advantages of staying online in more detail in the below articles.
Tours and other Fun Experiences
Tourism has boomed in Japan and popular attractions can fill up several days in advance. Most notably is Teamlab Borderless where tickets are sometimes sold out several weeks in advance.
In many cases, it will not only give you peace of mind it will also save you a few bucks. Often online tickets are cheaper than the price at the door.
Most activities and tours can be booked with either GetYourGuide or Klook.
Here is some information about the booking sites we use most for bookings in Japan.
Millions have already booked their tours with GetYourGuide.
What we love about GetYourGuide is its outstanding customer service.
They’re just a call or an e-mail away and will respond quickly and professionally.
Most activities booked on GetYourGuide can be canceled for free until 24 hours in advance which leaves you with enough flexibility in case your plans might change.
Check prices and availability:
Klook is a major Asian ticket booking site aimed at independent travelers.
They offer more activities in Japan than any other booking site. In many cases, tickets on Klook are cheaper than the official prices at the door.
This might have you wonder if Klook is legit. It is!
The site is completely trustworthy, it has already been featured in several reputable business magazines (such as Forbes) and we have used it, as well as thousands of other users, without any problems.
Not all activities offered by Klook can be canceled until 24 hours in advance.
Check prices and availability:
Here’s a list of things you might consider booking in advance:
teamLab Borderless: A very popular experience in Tokyo unlike anything else you have seen before.
Tokyo Skytree: Amazing 360-degree views of Japan’s capital. This ticket allows you to skip the line.
Traditional Tea Ceremony in Kyoto: An introduction to the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.
Ghibli Museum: The Ghibli museum contains a world-famous collection of art pieces
Sumo Tournament or Sumo Practice: Sumo tournaments are only held 3 times per year. If you can attend one we certainly recommend it. If you are not in Japan during the tournaments it is still worthwhile to attend a practice session.
Universal Studios: Another amazing theme park in Osaka. Your ticket includes access to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and Minion park. To spend your time efficiently you can upgrade your pass to skip the line at 4 attractions or 7 attractions.
Do you already know how you will get from the airport to your hotel? We definitely recommend that you plan this in advance so that you arrive in the country stress-free.
Tokyo Narita – Skyliner Express Ticket The N’ex train is covered by the JR Pass. If you have no JR pass this train is a good alternative.
Osaka Kansai – Nankai Line rapi:t The JR Haruka is covered by the JR Pass. If you have no JR pass this rapit train from the Nankai line is a good alternative.
Hakone Free Pass A good discount pass to explore Hakone and see Mt. Fuji
Tokyo Metro Pass The cheapest option to get around Tokyo (unless you plan on using your JR Pass in the capital). If you pre-order your metro pass it will be ready at the airport and you can use it to get to your hotel.
1 week in advance
What to pack for your Japan trip
We’re almost there. It’s time to start packing.
The most important things are of course your passport and an open mind.
Once those are taken care of you can have a look at our Japan Packing List, a handy list that covers everything from the official stuff, to travel gear to make your trip more comfortable as well as what to wear in the various seasons.
Great, you reached the end of this post! I hope this means you’re all done and can start counting down to this amazing adventure.
Don’t forget to join our Japan Facebook group if you haven’t already done so. In this group, you can exchange tips with fellow Japan Travelers to fine-tune those last details of your trip.
Let’s wrap it up by wishing you a Japan vacation of a lifetime!