Plan a Trip to Japan: The 2019 Guide

ViaHero · January 28, 2019

If you're planning a trip to Japan, worry not—we've got you covered!

It's no secret that Japan is an absolutely thrilling travel destination, but the language and cultural barriers can definitely throw a wrench in even the most efficient traveler's plans. With that in mind, read on for all the tips you'll need to know in order to make sure your Japan excursion is nothing but smooth sailing. Once you do, feel free to message us directly with any questions you still have!

Want to make the most out of your trip? Tap into our network of local travel planners—Heroes—who build unique, locally-curated trip plans, designed just for you. Get started.

While cost may be high, you can minimize it easily

Price is one of the main barriers for travelers to Japan, as the country is generally regarded as expensive, and difficult to explore on a budget.

While there certainly are some expensive accommodations and restaurants in Japan, not everything has a hefty price tag.  There are plenty of budget options throughout Japan.

Be sure to check out our list of Japan Budget Tips. Two awesome tips are:

  1. Look out for "Nomihodai"—it means all you can drink!
  2. Buy discounted meals in the evening—it's important in Japan that food is fresh.  To get rid of uneaten meals at the end of the day, grocery stores discount prepacked dishes in the evening (around 7:00 to 9:00 PM).

Additionally, be sure to ask a local what their favorite free activities or places to get a cheap meal are.

japanese yen japan currency

Language is your biggest barrier—here are some phrases you may need

Language is probably the most legitimate barrier for travelers to Japan.  Luckily, if you are able to read this article, you will most likely be able to navigate around Japan.  It may not always be pretty (you’re going to get lost - just accept it), but you'll eventually find your way home.

There are plenty of ways to combat the language barrier.  First and foremost- master some basic Japanese.  While it is unlikely that you’ll be able to use it navigate solo around Tokyo, it may buy you some good grace with any locals you ask for help.  Some simple phrases to know include:

  • Sumimasen (sue-me-mah-sen)“Excuse me/Sorry”
  • Arigatou (ah-ri-ga-tō)“Thank you”  (Informal)
  • Konichiwa (kohn-ee-chee-wah)“Hello” 
  • Oishi (oh-ee-shee)“Delicious” 

Additionally, be patient and kind.  If you get lost, there is no need to get super stressed (unless you’re in a dangerous neighborhood, then yeah, maybe get out of there). Take a deep breath, and try again to navigate.  If that doesn’t work, slowly and kindly approach a local who seems to not be in a rush.

Finally, having Google translate and your hotel address (written in Japanese) on you at all times can’t hurt.

Public transit is everywhere so keep a map handy

This is an issue that can be filed under the “accept you are going to get lost” section of traveling to Japan.  Japan is a massive country, and has one of the most detailed/intricate transportation systems in the world.  On one hand, this is great - you can get practically anywhere on public transit.  On the other hand, maps generally look like this:

tokyo subway route japan tips

Even in major cities like Tokyo, there is no guarantee that a map will have English (meaning, the Roman alphabet) on it.

To prep for this:

 ViaHero Map - Your ViaHero itinerary will come with an offline map with all suggested points of interested marked.  You can use this to navigate anywhere, even when you don’t have service.

Paper English/Japanese Map: Bring a paper map that has both English and Japanese words on it (this is probably going to be a really big map).

Study Japanese map symbols before you arrive.

Study how addresses work in Japan before you arrive.

Don't depend on your credit card

If you do any amount of research about Japan before arriving, one of the first tidbits of information you’ll gather is that not many retail shops accept credit cards, and not all ATMs will accept foreign cards.

This is true. Always try to find an ATM close to your accommodation that accepts your card. Always carry around enough cash for shopping, transport, and meals.

If you are a AAA member in America, it is possible to put in an order for Yen bills before you leave on your trip. Make sure you put in the order weeks before you leave.

currency exchange japan tips

You can adapt to the local customs to make life easier during your trip!

Another major concern for travelers to Japan is adapting to local customs.  There are many cultural differences between Japan and some western countries.  Once again, if you do any amount of research before arriving, it shouldn’t be difficult to avoid the big ones.

Here are some of our top Japanese customs to consider:

  • On an escalator, stand on the left and let people pass on the right
  • Try to finish everything on your plate - every noodle and grain of rice
  • Bow when you meet someone, thank them, or say goodbye
  • Be "open" - don't cross your legs and arms, and remove hands from pockets
  • Don't speak on your phone, or play loud music, while on trains and bus
  • Feel free to slurp your noodles and soup - it shows that you are enjoying your meal
  • Don't wear all black or all white
  • Cover your tattoos 

Check if you need a visa

Do you need a visa to travel to Japan? Well, that depends on who’s asking. If you are from the United States, Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and some parts of Europe, no. Otherwise, you should check with your local state department.

Taking the subway is probably your top pick for transportation

To get a train pass, or not to get a train pass? That is the question.  If you are going to be in Japan for a while, and are using the train often, the answer is probably a definitive: get a JR train pass. These deeply discounted tickets are for tourists only, and can only be purchased outside Japan. If you're having trouble understanding the intricacies, check out this guide to the JR Pass. You can also buy your JR Pass online here.

Note: You can now purchase your JR Pass inside Japan, but it is significantly more expensive if you do.

train public transportation japan

Wifi isn't common

For a country as technologically forward as Japan, public Wifi is lacking. The reason? Most people carry around their own wireless router. If you are hoping to have reliable wifi while in Japan, it might be worth it to purchase a sim card, or wireless router while visiting.

Japan is well equipt, so have no fear about earthquakes

The islands of Japan are located in a very geologically and volcanically active part of the Pacific Ocean.  This is the reason Japan has a stunning coastline, and epic mountains... but is also the reason Japan suffers from earthquakes multiple times a week.

 A quick Google search of “Earthquakes in Japan” reveals information on all of the recent earthquakes (as of today that = 5 earthquakes in the past 4 days).

 However, Japanese engineering is well equipped for these small, but frequent earthquakes. There is a chance you won’t even notice they are happening. However, it always important to read up on Japanese earthquake safety before traveling through the country.

japan skyline cityscape

There's so much to do in Japan—create an itinerary to see everything you want

"Where should I go in Japan?"

Simple question, not a simple answer!  There are a lot of factors that determine where you should visit while traveling in Japan.  How long are you there? How much do you want to travel? Do you like cities? Do you like food? Do you like adventure sports?

If you are looking for personalized recommendations based off of your interests, look no further than ViaHero! Local Heroes will plan a completely personalized trip for you, packed with insider tips and off the beaten path locations - all for the low price of $25 a day.

religious temple japan

To get started with ideas, check out our articles on:

Driving isn't necessary

Should you drive in Japan?  Generally, unless you can read Japanese, the suggestion is to not attempt to drive in Japan.  You will not be able to read the signs, and this may result in a dangerous situation.  Additionally, all traffic moves on the left, and this may be confusing for some travelers.

Finally, Japan has an excellent rail system - there is really no reason for visitors to travel by car. 

Japan has plenty of options for lodging

Where you stay in Japan depends on what your budget is, and what type of experience you are hoping to have.  For suggestions on neighborhoods, it is best to ask a local what area they suggest you stay in.  Hoping to be near museums?  Near a metro station?  Want to go to a food markets? Our locals have the answer!

Additionally, if you are debating on hotel vs apartment vs hostel vs pod, check out our Budget Japan article for a breakdown on each one.

Finally, be sure to look at these amazing Airbnbs that YOU could stay in while in Japan.  

pod hotels in japan
Inside of Pod Hotel in Japan

Pack for unpredictable weather

Remember these two things when packing for your trip to Japan: It rains often in Japan (bring a raincoat and umbrella), and Japan has four distinct seasons. Be sure to check the weather for the time you will be there, and pack layers.  The days could be warm, but the days might get much colder when the sun goes down.

Finally, be sure to be culturally appropriate when packing (wear socks, slip on shoes, etc.)   This article has some great advice on what to pack for a trip to Japan.

Chefs are considerate about your dietary restrictions, so make sure to tell them beforehand

Finally, people are often concerned about what they are going to eat while in Japan.  Much like accepting that you are going to get lost, it is probably good to accept that you will not always know what you are ordering, and you might eat something that you don’t like. However, you’re on vacation in Japan - life could be worse.

fish japan food tips

  • If you have strict allergies, it is very important that you have these written out, in Japanese, before you arrive.
  • If you encounter an issue where you cannot read the menu, try to patiently ask the server if they speak English.  In general, restaurant staff are very accommodating, so be sure to show gratitude for their help.  
  • If you are worried about struggling to find places to eat, have one of our local experts suggest great restaurants.  This way you’ll get to try local cuisine, and know you'll have a great experience before arriving! 
  • These guides are helpful on dining vegetarian, or gluten-free while in Japan.

Have more questions about traveling to Japan? Here is a list of local Japanese travel experts who can help you or you can message us any questions you have. And before your trip, make sure to check out:


Ready to let a local plan your trip to Japan? Let ViaHero help!