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How to Plan a Trip to Japan

Updated June 24, 2020

You want to plan a trip to Japan; we want to help. Since we believe that locals know best, we asked our Japan travel experts to weigh in. They helped to create this guide which covers how to plan your trip, traveling within Japan, and what to do once you're there. 

Don’t miss out on what makes Japan so incredible: get personalized advice on things to do, see, and eat from people who actually live in Japan. Learn more.

Tips for planning your trip

Traveler in Japan | bobby hendry/Unsplash

Follow these six easy tips for planning out your Japan trip: 

Tip #1: Check to see if your phone works

If you’re reading this on mobile, you may already be wondering: will my phone work in Japan? Having a phone in Japan is great—not only for sharing your trip on Instagram and Facebook, but also in case you need to pull up a translation app.

Check with your carrier to find out if your phone will work—most carriers offer international plans! If you don’t have one already, you can buy one; or, if your phone is unlocked, locals tell us that you can also buy a SIM card once you arrive in Japan. 

Benefit from local advice: Our trip planners tell us that, despite Japan's reputation as a futuristic country, public wifi can be spotty. One way to stay connected is by renting a wireless router for your trip. 

Local Tip:

You can buy SIM cards from vending machines at train stations and airports.

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Tip #2: Figure out where in Japan you want to stay

This may be the toughest part of planning a trip. What’s the best place to stay in Japan? Honestly, it depends on what you want out of your trip. If your heart beats to the sound of the city, locals suggest finding a cool neighborhood in Tokyo. Maybe you love skiing and good beer—then our locals say to think about Sapporo (and even if you only like beer, go to Sapporo to drink and soak in the Japanese hot springs). Are you a huge foodie? Locals recommend Osaka—literally nicknamed “Japan’s kitchen.”

Tip #3: Buy a JR (Japan Rail) Pass

A Japan Rail Pass | fletcherjcm/Flickr

If you’re hoping to visit all the places in Japan (and you should!), Japanese locals say you should definitely invest in a Japan Rail Pass (JR Pass). At first glance it looks expensive: for 7 days the price is $269; for 14 days it’s $428, and for 21 days it’s $548. All in all, it’s not so bad: if you’re taking the train once a day, that comes to $25–$40/day (depending on which pass you choose).

And if you’re looking to see the whole country, it’s a smart investment. Until recently you could only buy JR Passes outside the country (because the pass was special for travelers). Although this rule has recently changed and Japan is now selling passes inside the country, we’d still recommend buying your pass in advance.

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Select your travel preferences below and let a local travel planner with ViaHero take it from there. Your personalized Japan recommendations, itinerary, and maps are just a few clicks away.

Tip #4: Japanese weather is wild (so pack accordingly)

Japanese locals say to remember two things when packing for your trip to Japan: it rains often, and Japan has four distinct seasons. Be sure to check the weather for the season you visit and pack layers. Things can get cold when the sun goes down.

Tip #5: Don’t worry about that visa

Most people don ‘t need a visa for Japan—as long as you’re staying for under 90 days. Easy!

"How did I ever not travel like this?! Ana’s local insight & planning was a game changer. It’s like having a digital concierge, travel agent, and local fixer all rolled into one!"
Sierra, recent ViaHero traveler to Portugal
Sierra, recent ViaHero traveler to Portugal

Tip #6: Learn a little Japanese

Although many people in big cities like Tokyo will speak English, this is far from universally true. Locals tell us that knowing a few words in Japanese like “hello” and “thank you” really go a long way. You don’t need to be fluent, but civility and respect are universally appreciated (and important in Japanese culture). So here’s a quick lesson:

  • Konichiwa (kohn-ee-chee-wah): Hello
  • Arigatou (ari-gah-to): Thank you (informal)
  • Arigatou gozaimasu (ari-gah-to go-zai-mah-s: Thank you very much (formal)
  • Onegai shimasu (oh-nee-guy shee-mah-s): Please (literally: I wish it)
  • Sumimasen (sue-me-mah-sen): Excuse me/sorry
  • Ikura desu ka (ee-koo-rah des kah): How much does it cost?
  • Oishi (oh-ee-shee): Delicious*

*Although slurping food is a perfectly acceptable way of showing satisfaction with your meal in Japan, you are definitely going to want to know this word.

If you have a ViaHero local build your trip, they can translate important info (like addresses) before you go—and give suggestions on good words/phrases to know. 

Tips for traveling through Japan

Public transportation in Sapporo | AndyLeungHK/Pixabay

Once you're in Japan, follow these locally sourced tips to navigate the country!

Tip #1: Know your transportation options

You may want to sit down before we answer your inevitable question about Uber in Japan. Ok, yes, Uber exists in Japan, but people hardly use it and it’s über expensive. But don’t worry: locals tell us you’ll have plenty of other transportation options.

  • Taxis: If you’re staying in a hotel, the staff can help you call a taxi. Otherwise, hailing a cab in Japan is pretty much the same as hailing a cab anywhere else—peer intently at the taxi in question and hold out an arm. It can be helpful to write down the address of your hotel or Airbnb, in the case of language barriers. Regardless, taxis are a good option in big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto where cabs are everywhere.
  • JapanTaxi App: This app is fairly new, and gets mixed reviews in the app store. It essentially functions as Uber for cabs, but it depends on taxi availability—and not all Japanese taxi companies are signed up. 
  • Metro (in big cities): Tokyo is not the only Japanese city with a metro. Locals note that other cities like Kobe and Osaka have similar intercity train systems. Taking the train is a budget-friendly transportation option. And if you’re constantly angry about people talking in the quiet car, you’re going to love Japanese trains: they’re quiet.
  • Japan Rail (between cities): You bought that JR Pass, right??

Tip #2: 7-Elevens are your best bet for withdrawing cash

So here’s the bad news: not all ATMs in Japan accept foreign cards.

Here’s the good news: Japan has more than 20,000 7-Eleven stores, and 7-Bank ATMs normally do accept foreign cards. ATMs at post offices are also good places to withdraw cash. Just remember to tell your bank about your trip so you don’t end up yen-less.

Despite Japan’s reputation as a technophile’s paradise, locals tell us that not all stores and restaurants take cards. So carry around enough cash for shopping, transport, and meals.

If you’re a AAA member, it’s possible to put in an order for Japanese yen bills before you leave on your trip. Put the order in a few weeks before you leave.  

Local Tip:

The food in Japanese 7/11s is really good! And you can find some treats here that are unique to Japan. 

Tip #3: Ditch the motel—lodge Japanese-style

A traditional ryokan | Christian Kadluba/Flickr

If you really want to immerse yourself in the local culture, consider accommodations in Japan that you can only find in Japan.

  • Capsule hotels: A budget-friendly option, capsule hotels offer tiny rooms, just large enough to fit a bed (sometimes a small TV as well). Capsule hotels come in many different forms, and it’s hard to beat the price (around $30/night).
  • Ryokans: Traditional Japanese inns, guests at ryokans wear robes and slippers, sleep on futons, and enjoy traditional meals with other guests. They’re often (but not always) located near onsens. Ryokan can run expensive ($150–$250+/night) but the immersive experience is well worth it.
  • Minshuku: Although less luxurious than ryokans, minshuku offer many of the same perks. They’re family-run bed & breakfasts, where guests share meals and bathrooms. With prices closer to $50–$80/night, they can be a good option for anyone looking for an immersive way to travel through Japan on a budget.

Of course, Japan also has more traditional accommodations: hotels, hostels, and some excellent Airbnbs.  

Local Tip:

For traditional Japanese accommodation like ryokans and minshuku, keep in mind that you’ll have to remove your shoes. So make sure you don’t have any holes in your socks!

Tip #4: Make your itinerary budget-friendly

Price is one of the main barriers to Japanese travel, but not everything in Japan has a hefty price tag. There are plenty of budget options in Japan. For example, nomihodai means “all you can drink.” You’re welcome.

Save money with local advice. Locals suggest you keep an eye out for discounted meals in the evening. It’s important in Japan that food is fresh, so to get rid of uneaten meals at the end of the day, grocery stores discount prepacked dishes in the evening (usually between 7:00 PM to 9:00 PM).

Tip #5: Indulge in the uniquely-Japanese activities

Women in Japan | Banter Snaps/Unsplash

Locals in Japan suggest adding these classic activities to your Japan itinerary: 

  • Bathe in the onsens (hot springs):  Onsens. Are. Amazing. Even in the summer, visiting an onsen is an incredible activity that’s both relaxing and culturally immersive. Many onsens frown upon tattoos, so bring tape to cover them up if you have them.
  • Eat sushi (and Japanese cuisine in general): You’re going to want to eat Japanese food—lots of it. It’s hard to find better sushi than in Japan, and this is true at all price points. You can find delicious bites at sushi conveyor belt restaurants (called kaiten), where plates are only a few dollars. And if you’re willing to splurge, you can check out world-famous sushi restaurants like Jiro (made famous by the film).
  • Check out the vending machines: This isn’t your office vending machine, half-full of stale snacks and that one annoying granola bar that will never be unstuck. Japan has vending machines for everything… like everything, from prayer cards to beer to toys and t-shirts.

Talk to someone who actually lives in Japan for advice on things to see while you're visiting their country. Locals are way more helpful than a dust-covered guidebook someone brought home in 1993—or even an article you found on Google from six months ago. Especially now!

Tips for making the most of your trip

Temple in Kyoto | Masaaki Komori/Unsplash

Follow these tips from our local trip planners to make the most out of your Japan adventure: 

Tip #1: There’s so much more to Japan beyond Tokyo

Don’t get us wrong—Tokyo is great. Japan’s capital city has so many incredible neighborhoods and awesome activities. But Japan isn’t just Tokyo. Locals recommend taking advantage of easy day trips from Tokyo, or planning longer voyages to visit other cities in Japan like Kyoto and Osaka. Japan is very safe, and you can feel secure traveling around the country.

Tip #2: Eat the junk food

Simply put, candy in Japan is fun. You’ll see recognizable brands like Kit Kat and Lays, but with zany flavors that you can’t find in other countries. Not only is candy a delicious and interesting thing to buy in Japan, but it’s also something you can easily bring home from Japan.

Tip #3: Avoid cultural faux pas

Locals suggest using these tips to avoid making any embarrassing cultural faux pas while in Japan:

  • If someone bows, bow back
  • Bow when you meet someone, say thank you, or say goodbye
  • Cover up tattoos at onsens
  • Don’t speak loudly on trains
  • Try to finish all the food on your plate (we genuinely don’t foresee this being a problem)
  • Don’t block the escalator: stand on the left, and let people pass on the right
  • Be “open”: don’t cross your legs and arms, and keep your hands out of your pockets
  • Don’t speak on the phone or play loud music while on public transportation

Tip #4: Don’t worry about earthquakes

Japan is an earthquake-prone country. However, Japanese engineering is well-equipped for the small but frequent quakes that rock Japan. You probably won’t even notice they’re happening—in fact, The New York Times recently wrote about how Japanese architecture is more prepared for quakes than most American buildings (gulp).

That being said, it doesn’t hurt to read up on Japanese earthquake safety before traveling to Japan.

Tip #4: See Japan like a local

Start planning your perfect trip. Locals can help! They’ll answer your questions about Japanese culture and design a trip that fits you and your travel style. Get started today!

Still have questions about travel to Japan?
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