Japan has become a popular tourist destination in recent years.
The mystical temples and deeply rooted faith are something you don’t see in many other countries.
Especially not when combined with all those high-tech gadgets for which the country is so well-known.
Both characteristics may contrast greatly at first glance, but the Japanese manage to combine them perfectly in their hurried day-to-day lives.
As a visitor, it’s difficult not to get overwhelmed by Japan’s exceptionally busy metropolises. They seem like ants’ nests. From early in the morning to late at night, you can see a constant flow of people in the streets, the stations and on the subway.
We will always remember the never-ending activity in those mega-cities, but what makes a trip to Japan perhaps even more worthwhile are the Japanese people themselves.
Their different customs, their courteousness and especially the discipline with which they live their lives are impressive. It’s a small miracle they manage to keep their public transportation, which transports millions of people to their destination every hour, running as smoothly and orderly as it does.
Cities like Tokyo and Kyoto are undoubtedly a highlight of any trip to Japan, but your holiday wouldn’t be complete without also including an excursion to the mountains or the gorgeous green island of Okinawa.
With this Japan travel guide, we help you create a beautiful journey in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Enjoy and we wish you a pleasant trip!
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What you need to know
The Japanese Yen is the local currency. Our payment cards were almost always accepted, from supermarkets, gas stations, and restaurants to the trains and the subway. However, there are a few exceptions. We had one train station where they did only accept cash or local cards. So, it’s best to always have a little bit of cash on you, just in case.
For payments, we used our Revolut and N26 cards because they don’t charge any currency exchange commissions and, as such, we saved 2.5% on average when compared with the traditional cards that do charge those fees.
Withdrawing money is possible at the ATMs. We never had problems to find an ATM that accepted our cards.
Obviously, people speak Japanese in Japan.
The English language is pretty commonplace, too, and most people you meet will have at least a basic knowledge of English.
Having a conversation is often difficult, but asking for directions, making some purchases in the local supermarket and checking if you’re taking the correct train or subway is perfectly possible in English.
Even if they don’t really know the language, the locals will do their utmost best to help you anyway.
When traveling to Japan, you might need a travel adapter, depending on where you’re from.
Japan uses plug type A and B (the same type they use in the United States).
The voltage is 100V.
Tipping is highly unusual in Japan.
In Japanese culture, this practice of giving tips is inappropriate and can cause loss of face to the person receiving the tip.
You’ll notice that you’ll get exceptional service everywhere you go in Japan, whether or not you tip won’t change anything.
Here you can find more Japan travel tips.
Best time to travel to Japan
It’s not easy to choose one specific season as the best season to travel to Japan. The best season to visit Japan is strongly dependent on the region you’re visiting, the activities you’d like to do and the things you want to see.
Generally speaking, however, spring and fall are considered the best seasons for a trip around Japan. These periods see little rainfall and, in general, allow you to enjoy blue-sky weather.
In spring, the abundant cherry blossoms are an attraction in and by themselves, while fall offers stunning fall colors.
Below, you can find some more information about the different seasons in Japan.
As mentioned, spring is a great season to visit Japan. An additional drawcard of this period is the opportunity to see the famous cherry blossoms, the so-called Sakura.
The blossoms start blooming in the South of Japan and gradually transform the entire country into a colorful floral display.
The trees on the northern peninsula of Hokkaido are the last ones to showcase their beautiful colors.
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 call them ‘Sakura’ and have an entire vocabulary of special words for Sakura parties, Sakura picnics, Sakura excursions after sunset, etc.
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.
Nature is unpredictable, however, and the exact period to enjoy the cherry trees in their colorful prime is a bit different from one year to the next.
This makes planning your trip slightly more difficult.
You can check the predictions and forecast on the site of the Japanese tourist board and the Japanese Meteorological Corporation, though.
If you’d like to increase your chances, it’s best to travel across Japan from North to South. This guarantees that you’ll be able to see the blossoms at their peak at least on one occasion.
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. Late April and early May is the “Golden Week”, a week that has no fewer than 4 Japanese holidays.
Many Japanese take advantage of this to explore their own country during that particular week, which makes the popular tourist attractions much busier than usual. This, in turn, causes the hotel rates to increase as well.
Summers in Japan are warm with temperatures that can exceed 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit).
Moreover, Japan has humid summers, which means that it can feel even warmer than the effectively measured temperature.
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.
Additionally, June and July make up the rainy season.
This applies to most of the country, only the northern peninsula of Hokkaido is mainly spared from the downpours.
During the rainy season, it doesn’t rain every day, though.
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 half of the time in summer.
The benefit of traveling through Japan during this time of year is that the popular tourist sites, where otherwise you’d be part of a huge crowd, are much less busy.
Generally, the rainy season ends sometime from mid- to late-July, but the weather does remain hot and humid. This climate is uncomfortable for people who aren’t used to it.
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.
You don’t necessarily have to avoid these months, however, because usually only a few severe storms reach the Japanese mainland.
These storms are also pretty predictable, which means 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.
If you’re not a fan of warm and humid summer weather, you could still always go to Hokkaido. This is the only region with summer temperatures around 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit).
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, yet they did already come up with a word for it: Koyo.
Just like during the Sakura, the best period to admire these amazing colors depends on the weather conditions.
Because Japan is fairly big, the peak period differs significantly between the different regions.
On the website of the Japanese government, you can track the Koyo predictions and forecast, just like the cherry blossoms.
At the end of September, the temperature starts dropping. When you visit Japan in October, you’ll often still be able to enjoy pleasant temperatures that exceed 20 degrees Celsius (68 degrees Fahrenheit).
November is usually a bit cooler, but this period also has its beautiful sunny days to enjoy.
This makes both October and November pleasant and comfortable months to travel around Japan.
Winter announces the low season in most regions in Japan.
Only Hokkaido, where you can go skiing, experiences a peak in tourism this time of year.
Temperatures across the entire country vary between cool and cold.
In Tokyo, some melting snow may fall during January and February, but this typically doesn’t stick around very long.
This is an atypical time to visit Japan, but the country does have some fun things to offer in winter. Great examples are the snow monkeys that you can see bathing in the onsen. Idyllic villages such as Shirakawa-go are very enchanting when they’re covered by a layer of fresh snow.
Japan is not a cheap country to travel around, especially not during the Sakura season and the Golden Week.
Yet, we still thought it was pretty affordable.
The most expensive aspect is accommodation, particularly if you’re going for luxury.
You can see the hotel rates in the luxury segment skyrocket during the peak season and rates of €880 per night are not an exception.
Other hotels obviously follow this trend, but their rates are a bit less extravagant.
If you visiting Japan during the peak season, it’s a good idea to book your accommodations way in advance.
We booked our accommodations about 4 months beforehand and visited Japan during both the Sakura and the Golden Week.
On average, we paid €108 per night (for a 2-person room) in 2018. We stayed in Ryokans, a temple stay, and various 3- or 4-star hotels.
Sometimes, we had to search a little bit—it would’ve been better if we’d booked even more in advance—but all accommodations were spotless and we thought they were totally fine for their price.
Low budget : € 70-80/night per room
Comfortable : € 100-110/night per room
Luxury : + € 200 /night per room
Eating and drinking in Japan is cheaper than it is in Belgium, the Netherlands, and the US.
Moreover, Japan has a surprisingly varied and healthy cuisine, which kept us interested and curious for more than 3 weeks and didn’t make us crave fries, a burger or other unhealthy snacks.
We spent €23.9 per day on average on lunch and dinner for both of us. (About €12 per person)
For lunch, we almost never went to a restaurant, but usually bought a pastry or sandwich in a local supermarket.
In the evening, we sometimes got street food, but typically went out to a restaurant.
We always ate local food in standard restaurants or Izakayas.
Most times, breakfast was included in our accommodation.
These are the budgets you must provide for food:
Low budget : € 18 (€ 5 bfast / € 5 lunch / € 10 dinner)
This budget should be sufficient for local fast-food restaurants that offer sushi, ramen etc.
Middle-class: € 35 (€ 8 bfast / € 12 lunch / € 15 dinner)
There are many such restaurants. The staff usually speaks limited English but with a little help of Google translate you can order some delicious local food.
Luxury : € 92 (€ 16 bfast / € 16 lunch / € 60 – 80 dinner)
For this budget you can have breakfast at a luxury hotel and enjoy dinner at Japanese fine dining restaurants. Think restaurants that offer French cuisine, delicious Kobe beef and Kaiseki dinners.
It’s a joy to travel across Japan by train.
The trains are punctual and can take you super-fast from one side of the country to the other. The ride is comfortable, with more than enough legroom, and the railroad network is so extensive that you can take the train to all tourist sights.
Service and quality do have a price tag, though.
Traveling by train in Japan is not that cheap and public transportation will most likely take the second-biggest bite out of your travel budget.
Getting a rental car won’t be any more affordable. Rental cars aren’t cheap, fuel is expensive and, on top of that, a large part of the Japanese road network consists of toll roads.
The price for a Japan Rail Pass might seem rather high at first, but it can still save you lots of money. We explain how you can check how much you save here.
Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass): 7-days pass: € 245 / 21-days pass: € 498
You can use your JR pass to travel around Tokyo and Osaka. It’s the cheapest option if you already have such a pass.
However, if you don’t have a JR Pass, there’s a very affordable metro pass for tourists in Tokyo. You can read more information about public transportation in Tokyo here.
Cheap flights to Japan
You can get direct flights to Japan from all over the world. Flights with the local carriers ANA and Japan Airlines tend to be slightly more extensive because they are recognized as 5-star airlines. Other carriers do also operate direct flights and because of the fierce competition you should be able to find affordable flights.
A flight with a layover is often a bit cheaper. Chinese carriers are known to offer rock-bottom prices on flights with a layover in Shanghai or other Chinese hubs.
As is always the case, prices go up during the holiday periods. Prices for direct flights seem to increase more, and in some cases double, than prices for flights with a connection.
To find the cheapest flights to Japan, we recommend checking Momondo.
Momondo is not a booking site, it is a flight aggregator. The site compares numerous other booking sites for you and gives you a nice overview of all possible flights and on which website you can book them for the lowest price.
If you’re planning a tour you can fly to Tokyo and return from Osaka, or vice versa. This saves you an extra trip by train between these two cities.
Japan has many more airports than the ones we mentioned above but you’ll often find the cheapest prices when you fly to Tokyo or Osaka.
Make sure to check prices for both Haneda and Narita airport in Tokyo. Fukuoka is another airport that offers cheap flights. It’s close to South Korea but further away from the main tourist sights in Japan.
If you’d like to know more about what’s actually the cheapest site to book your plane tickets, click here.
Staying online in Japan
We thought it was pretty easy to explore Japan independently, at least if you have internet access.
We did use our phones intensively to avoid getting lost, find fun restaurants and check the train or subway schedule.
When translating menu items, Google Translate is quite useful. It gives you an idea of the menu options even though you often still won’t know what you exactly ordered as the translations aren’t always correct or clear.
If you’re going to be traveling around Japan independently, being able to use the internet is not a luxury, but a necessity.
To get access to the internet, without paying an arm and a leg for roaming fees, you’ve got various options.
Some locations also have free WiFi, but when we wanted to use it, it didn’t always work properly.
What is the easiest way to travel around Japan
As we’ve already mentioned, trains are a super-convenient way to get around Japan.
Often the most affordable options is to get a Japan Rail Pass. This pass will also help you get around in large cities like Tokyo and Osaka, where you can take both trains and subways.
Public transportation in Japan is a jumble and, at first, it takes some getting used to the fact that it’s operated by different companies. Once you’re used to it, however, it’s a joy to use it to get around.
There are many different passes that offer you a discount on the use of public transportation, sometimes in combination with admission to certain attractions.
In our articles about Osaka, Tokyo, and Kyoto, we discuss the interesting passes that can save you money.
It’s also possible to get a rental car.
In the large cities, a car seems like a liability to us, considering that parking isn’t free anywhere and public transportation is so excellent. Outside of the major cities, you might consider renting a car in Japan if you don’t want to be dependent on the train timetable.
Here are a few things you should know if you’d like to rent a car in Japan:
• People drive on the left side of the road in Japan
• Almost all highways are toll roads. The easiest way to pay is electronically with an ETC pass that you can get as an option with a rental car
• You will need an international driving permit according to the 1949 Geneva convention. Citizens of Belgium, France, Germany, Monaco, Taiwan, Slovenia, Estonia, and Switzerland instead need an official translation of their national driver’s license as these countries do not issue International Driving Permits according to the 1949 Geneva convention.
• A GPS is an invaluable tool, considering road signs are limited once you leave the main roads
We thought Japan was a pretty easy country to explore independently.
In case you don’t like getting around by yourself or would rather travel with an organization, check out Tourradar.
They offer beautiful trips of 5, 7, 10, 15 or 21 days.
Do I need travel insurance for Japan
The quick answer to this question is yes.
Travel Insurance is something that can be overlooked when you prepare for your vacation. Certainly when you’re traveling to a safe and civilized country such as Japan.
Overall, chances are slim that you will encounter any problems while traveling through a civilized country such as Japan. But when things go wrong in civilized countries, the medical costs can be high.
We learned it the hard way when we once had to visit the hospital in the United States.
The medical care was excellent but we had high out-of-pocket expenses as it turned out the insurance that came with our credit cards didn’t cover these costs. It turned out we were underinsured.
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. Good travel insurance covers things like medical expenses, trip cancellation, overseas medical costs, evacuation, baggage damage or loss, and theft.
Travel routes in Japan
There are countless things to do in Japan. On one hand, there are the impressive cities, but there are also picturesque villages in the mountains, beautiful beaches and even places where you can go scuba diving and snorkeling.
You probably won’t be able to see everything on 1 trip.
They’ll take you to numerous highlights in Japan.
Talking about highlights, these are the places and attractions you definitely shouldn’t miss during your Japan trip.
Highlights of Japan
We often get the question of what you absolutely can’t miss when visiting Japan.
Although this greatly depends on the individual traveler, there are a number of things you absolutely can’t miss.
During your trip, you’ll no doubt visit some of the iconic cities in Japan.
For many people, Tokyo will be their first impression of Japan. It’s an amazingly fascinating city.
One moment you’re walking among skyscrapers and before you know it, you’ll find yourself on cozy pedestrian streets that’ll make you forget you’re in a mega-city.
This is also where you’ll find the famous robot restaurant, one of the most important tourist attractions.
You can break up your time in Tokyo with an excursion to Mount Fuji and other day trips.
If you’re wondering which sights you should definitely also visit, click here.
There’s a tremendous number of things to see and do in Tokyo and you could easily spend 5 days here. If you’d like to do something different after a few days of sightseeing, we recommend spending the day at Tokyo DisneySea.
Tokyo is really expansive and is home to thousands of hotels, we tell you what the best places to stay are here.
The best way to get around is public transportation.
Read more about Tokyo:
Kyoto is another one of those must-see destinations. In some places, it feels as if you’ve flown back 100 years in time.
Here you can find some inspiration for 2 fascinating days in this cultural city. If you don’t have much time to spend in Kyoto, we recommend booking an organized tour.
Kyoto also has a lot to offer at night. For a complete overview of what you can do in Kyoto at night, click here.
One of the most fun activities we did in Kyoto was an evening walk in the magical Gion district. A walk through this neighborhood is absolutely recommended if you’d like to see a Geisha.
But there’s much more to do here at night. Many temples are lit up in a fairytale-like way after dark. Here is a list of tips to fill your evenings in Kyoto. You won’t easily get bored in this city in the evening.
Kyoto has a less extensive public transportation network. Make sure to pick a hotel close to a station. Here is an overview of the areas in Kyoto and the best places to stay.
Read more about Kyoto:
We thought Osaka was one of the most fun cities in Japan.
On 2 days you can visit the highlights of this city without having to rush too much.
Osaka is alive both day and night. Definitely visit the famous Namba district. You won’t know where to look first in the evening. Here are a few other places worth visiting after sunset.
We also took a Japanese cooking class in Osaka and learned how to make ramen and gyozas. Although we didn’t make this again at home—it’s quite difficult to find all the necessary ingredients— it was still a super-fun experience.
Read more about Osaka:
Hiroshima is a small city when compared with the previous cities.
Everyone knows Hiroshima as the city where the first atomic bomb was dropped. And that’s also the primary reason to visit it.
There’s a very different, much more relaxed atmosphere. We felt like it was much less busy here than in other cities in Japan.
From Hiroshima, you can also go for a beautiful day trip to Miyajima, well-known for the floating Torii gate.
Here you can find a complete overview of what to do and where to stay in Hiroshima.
Mt. Fuji is literally and figuratively a highlight of Japan. Seeing this iconic mountain is on many travelers’ wishlist.
Did you know, by the way, that this volcano is sometimes visible from Tokyo?
The chance that you’ll see the mountain without leaving the capital, however, is rather small.
If you’d like to see this majestic mountain, the best way to do that is on a day trip to Hakone or to Lake Kawaguchiko. You can also have a stopover with an overnight in Hakone if you’re traveling from Tokyo to Osaka or Kyoto. After all, the Tokaido Shinkansen passes right by Hakone and stops in Odawara.
Would you rather go to Mount Fuji by organized tour? There’s a plethora of options when it comes to those tours, in this article we’ve got a nice table of which things can be visited on those tours. It makes your choice a little bit easier.
Visit an Onsen
An onsen (a hot spring) is typical of Japan. Many Japanese take a dive into an onsen after a long and tiring day at work.
We also enjoyed allowing our muscles to relax in an onsen after a day of sightseeing.
In the major cities, there are large onsen with many different facilities, comparable to large saunas.
If this scares you a little, you can also use the onsen in your own hotel.
Most hotels and ryokans, traditional Japanese family hotels, have their own onsen.
The most fun experience is a visit to an onsen village where you can walk from one onsen to the next while wearing traditional clothing.
It’s completely over-the-top, fake and extremely kitschy, but it’s also downright fun.
In Japan, indefinitely in Kabukicho in Tokyo where the robot restaurant is located, you can see several things that seem a bit crazy to us.
A stroll through Kabukicho is certainly worthwhile and if you really want to be overwhelmed by all things wrong, a visit to the robot restaurant is certainly recommended.
Here you can read our detailed post about the robot restaurant.
You can also travel by train to Yudanaka to see the Snow Monkeys
The snow monkeys
As huge animal lovers, we thoroughly enjoyed our visit to the snow monkeys in Yudanaka. These monkeys love an onsen as much as we do.
The best moment to visit these monkeys is in winter or in the beginning of spring when it’s not too warm yet and the monkeys are in the natural onsen to warm up.
If you’d like to get into the onsen as well after visiting the monkeys, you should go to Shibu onsen in the evening. It features 9 public onsen.
Put on your traditional clothing and sandals and spend the evening relaxing as the Japanese do.
Visit an amusement park
Japan is home to numerous amusement parks.
DisneySea is absolutely worth visiting, it even won an award for its stunning design. Universal Studios is also very much worth a visit and near Mt. Fuji you’ll find the Fuji Q Highland Amusement Park.
If you’re a fan of amusement parks, you shouldn’t think twice about visiting one (or two) and while traveling with children, that decision is even easier.
For people who aren’t usually big amusement park enthusiasts, it’s still fun to see how the Japanese get completely immersed in the magic. Many people are covered in makeup and dressed up as their favorite heroes.
A Kaiseki dinner is a gastronomic meal that consists of multiple courses of various small dishes. It’s a real culinary treat.
They always use local fresh seasonal dishes that fit well together and the different courses are also presented in a beautiful way. Kaiseki is the Japanese variant of what we might call haute cuisine.
A Kaiseki dinner is a journey through the Japanese kitchen. It’s not cheap, but if you love fine dining, it’s something that you should absolutely experience when you visit Japan.
Visit a sumo wrestling match
Sumo is the national sport of Japan.
There are 6 large annual tournaments (January, May, and September).
Attending these tournaments is an enormously popular thing to do.
This is why they’re often sold out months in advance and it’s a good idea to purchase your tickets well beforehand.
You can also see sumo wrestlers in action during other months. You can attend a sumo training session. Those spots are also limited, though, so we suggest that you don’t wait too long before buying your tickets.
Experience a traditional tea ceremony
A traditional Japanese tea ceremony is an unforgettable experience. It’s an important Japanese ritual in which art and tradition are united.
Because the traditional tea ceremony is part of a meditation technique of Zen Buddhism, it’s bound to strict rules.
As such, drinking the tea takes place in complete silence.
If you want to learn more about traditional Japanese culture, then attending a tea ceremony is definitely recommended.
Spend a night in a Ryokan
A Ryokan is a traditional Japanese family hotel.
You’ll sleep in a traditional room on a futon, which is a type of thick mattress, on the floor.
The family who owns the Ryokan is usually very hospitable and helpful. For the best experience, it’s best to choose a small-scale Ryokan.
Because of their popularity, there are now some huge Ryokans, but those are nowhere near as charming as the smaller Ryokans where you still enjoy the direct contact with the family.
You will get a Yukata to wear during your stay. This is a traditional garment that’s comparable to a Kimono. While the Japanese get out the Kimono for more festive occasions, the Yukata is the simpler variety for everyday use.
A stay in a Ryokan is often a bit more expensive than a hotel. Breakfast is usually included and you often have the possibility to book an evening meal as well.
Most Ryokans are also equipped with an onsen where you can wind down after a busy day of temple hopping.
Rent a kimono for a day
You will see Japanese people walking around in their Kimono every day.
Especially during the cherry blossom season, they all take out their Kimono for a photoshoot with the colorful flowers. So, why wouldn’t you do the same?
You can rent a kimono for a day. This is perfect to take a few beautiful photos among the cherry blossoms, in the spectacular temples or at the iconic Shrines.
Where to stay in Japan
In smaller towns and village, choosing where to stay isn’t that hard, but in huge cities like Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, it sometimes requires some puzzling to figure out the best place to stay.
We created an overview of the following cities and their different districts, with their pros and cons.
What to take to Japan
What you should take with you depends greatly on when you’re traveling to Japan. As pointed out above in this Japan travel blog, when we talked about the best travel time, the temperatures vary quite a lot from season to season.
When we were in Japan in Spring to see the cherry blossoms we were surprised by the day to day difference in temperature. One day we could wear shorts and short sleeves, the other day we were happy to have pants and shirts with long sleeves.
It’s best to wear layers when you’re visiting Japan in the shoulder seasons.
Here, you can find our complete Japan packing list that includes everything you definitely can’t forget when visiting Japan.