From picking flights to finding the perfect traditional ryokan, planning your trip to Japan takes time, but the payoff is worth it.
Seeing the neon streets, floating torii gates and golden temples of Japan are daydream material, but you’ll need some practical planning to make the dream trip become reality. From choosing when to visit (do you catch the spring blossom or soak in snowy hot springs?) to where to go (Kyoto’s temples or Okinawa’s beaches?), there are some big decisions to make, and plenty of smaller ones that come with them. Connecting the dots between the destinations, delicacies and dreamy ryokan that make up your bucket list requires planning, but it’s all worth it when you get here.
While train passes and wifi rental options aren’t exactly glamorous, if they help you reach that distant city or lead you to a great festival happening nearby, you’ll be glad you did the research. Japan is a once-in-a-lifetime destination for most of us, meaning that missed opportunities are just not an option.
Spontaneity is a key part to exploring a new country, and we’re not saying to plan things down to the second, but Japan isn’t as flexible as Thailand or as cheap as India. It’s a country that values reservations, schedules and appointments like a nitpicking grandmother, so while leaving days free to follow stray cats down country roads is fine, you’ll still need to know when the last bus home is.
Bonus note: We have a specific guide for female solo travel in Japan covering everything from safety to socializing, so check it out if you’re going it alone!
1. When to visit
Choosing between sweltering summer humidity for a beach vacation and icy winter winds for a ski stay may seem obvious for a lot of trips, but Japan’s seasons are about more than just weather. Marking each subtle change with parties, picnics and festivals, the cultural side of the seasons matter as much as the climate. You could visit Japan four times and experience a completely different holiday with each trip, so we’ve summed up the highlights of each one to help you choose:
Spring: Blossoms galore
The most popular option (and with good reason, to be fair) spring in Japan means blossoms, blossoms and more blossoms. We have the full lowdown on the season’s climate, events and food, but here are some bonus highlights to tempt you in:
- Cherry blossom means forecasts, fun festivals, and hanami parties!
- Take your pick from handy spring-themed bus tours or consider these great day trips
- Feast on seasonal foods like young bamboo to strawberry sweet treats.
Summer: Festivals and food
Summer is hot, hot, hot, but we have a full seasonal guide to get you the best of this festival-filled season. Whether you want to indulge in a beachy break or escape to the mountains to keep cool, you can enjoy a sweet but sweaty trip, so here are some highlights:
- Incredible summer festivals and what to expect when you go.
- All the best summer foods—from kakigori to nagashi somen.
- Your pick of summery day trips beach destinations and cooling northern retreats.
Autumn: Falling leaves
Like the hipster version of spring, autumn is gaining a steady following for travelers looking for a different side to Japan. The cool relief from summer’s humidity means clear skies, great hiking weather and truly beautiful golden vistas. Here are some of autumn’s seasonal highlights:
- Check out the best koyo (leaf viewing) spots in Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka.
- Head out to explore on a guided bus tour or on your self-planned day trip.
- Fill up on fall foods like baked sweet potato and fresh shinmai rice.
Winter: Hot springs and skiing
A season of snow and fire, winter in Japan is a bit of a wonderland. Depending on if you want to head up to the snowy north and ski or avoid the harsher weather, there’s hot springs, warming food and unique festivals to enjoy. Here are the highlights:
- If you fancy an out-of-town day trip or want to experience a real hot spring getaway, there are plenty to choose from.
- Travel-wise you can venture up north for the famous ice festivals, stay central for skiing or try our 3-day Tokyo itinerary.
- Enjoying some winter staples like nabe (hotpot) or the special new year’s meal of osechi ryori are the cherry on the uniquely Japanese christmas cake.
…and when not to visit
Of course we also have to mention the times when it’s best not to visit Japan. While these times are few, they are pronounced. If it’s your only opportunity by all means still come, you’ll find things to do, but try to travel outside these times if possible:
- Rainy season (June to mid-July): It’s not awful, but the rain and storms can result in cancellations of anything from flights to festivals, so you might end up stuck in a hotel for good chunks of your time.
- Typhoon season (August to September): More severe, but less frequent, the typhoons definitely cause cancellations. However, you might not encounter one, so it’s a roll of the dice compared to rainy season.
- Golden Week (late April/early May): This collection of national holidays sees a real travel rush. That means packed bullet trains, sky-high priced flights and hotels booked up waaaay in advance. Many places are also closed, so it’s all round not an ideal time to be here.
- New Year (December 31st to Jan 4th): While Christmas isn’t a big thing here, New Year is, but not in the way you might envisage. It’s a time for family, and you’ll find most of Japan closed down as people return to their hometowns for dinner and shrine/temple visits. Travel is also congested as people return to the cities, so keep that in mind.
2. How to get here
If you have your heart set on a specific season (or are tied to certain dates), then figuring out the best flight deals is pretty important. It’s always a matter of balance when it comes to your dates, your finances and your environmental impact (for example, direct vs. indirect flights, carbon offsetting and carrier can all have an impact).
- Finding the best flights: We’ve created a whopping great mega-guide for general advice on getting the best flights to Japan and articles for specific locations including Sydney, Toronto, Los Angeles, New York, Singapore and Auckland.
- Haneda airport tips: If you’re flying into Tokyo’s Haneda airport we have a guide on the fastest ways to get to town, your best options if you arrive late at night, and some great layover ideas too.
- Narita airport tips: For those arriving at the slightly more distant Narita, here’s how to get into Tokyo ASAP, your best options for late-night arrivals, and all the best layover options!
- Luggage options: When you arrive, you can choose between lugging it with you storing your luggage or sending it on ahead with a porting service.
3. Getting around
Transport in Japan is famously impressive. Hop on a bullet train to travel hundreds of miles in luxury or use the extensive Tokyo metro system to explore the capital. Throw in local trains, highway buses and even ferries and you have a limitless range of possibilities—but also a bit of a scheduling nightmare. Here are the basics:
Trains: The JR Pass, travel cards and bonus passes
- The Japan Rail Pass: Whether or not to get the JR pass is the main question for most travellers, and it’s much simpler than you might think. If you plan on taking only one or two inter-city trips, use our fancy Shinkansen fare calculator to work out the cost of individual tickets. Then consult our guide on which JR Pass to choose from to see which option better suits your travel plans. Offering unlimited travel in certain areas, the lesser-known passes can often be the more affordable option.
- Bullet trains: If you want a heads up on the shinkansen we have some great tips on how to catch them, ideas for short journeys, and even the special Hello Kitty service running between Kansai and Kyushu.
- Travel cards: Making life approximately 1000 times easier, travel cards are a great option both in Tokyo and beyond. Choose between the Suica and Pasmo (or regional alternatives) and slide through those ticket gates like an ice cube down the back of an unsuspecting enemy (fast, smooth and with an irrefutable burst of joy as you do it).
Buses: Highway and overnight options
Less glamorous but more affordable, highway buses in Japan are a savior if you can’t afford the trains or are in areas without them (Kyushu, for example). While local services can be limited, keep an eye out for tourist loop services available in places like Kanazawa and Kyoto.
Highway buses are a great alternative to pricey trains and the overnight versions allow you to skip a night’s accommodation and arrive at your new destination not quite bright-eyed, but at least semi-functioning.
Boats: Sail away
They may not immediately spring to mind, but Japan is an archipelago, so if you’re planning on heading to some of the smaller islands, boats are a great option. While larger islands like Hokkaido, Kyushu and Shikoku have road access, smaller islands like Sado Hachijojima and Yakushima rely on planes and boats. With the latter being far cheaper and lower in emissions, they deserve some real consideration.
To get you started here’s a guide to the ferry version of the JR Rail Pass—it’s a great alternative!
4. Where to go in Japan
It’s impossible to see it all—so don’t try. We’re big fans of the quality over quantity approach, so pick a few spots, don’t overstretch and enjoy getting to know each place a little bit better. As for the world’s obsession with going “off the beaten track”: seeing quieter places is great for you and the local economy, but don’t feel like you have to avoid the iconic spots that inspired your trip in the first place—they’re popular for a reason.
Tokyo is a given (usually thanks to flights), and there’s enough to keep you busy for life. But there’s more to a country than its capital, so do leave at some point. While this whole site is dedicated to Tokyo and its environs, we also have our sister site Japan Cheapo to cover the rest of the country, but here are some guides to get you started:
- A collection of Tokyo-based itineraries including options for foodies, explorers, and a complete 24-hour guide.
- Neighbourhood guides complete with places to stay, eat and top sightseeing spots.
- 25 ideas for day trips from Tokyo, featuring rivers, hot springs and temple towns to escape the city crush.
- A guide to the golden trio: Kyoto, Hiroshima and Osaka, complete with pros, cons and alternatives.
- A 7-day JR Pass itinerary including all the top spots.
- A 14-day JR itinerary visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
- Area guides for all 47 prefectures in Japan
- Localized itinerariesfor cities and regions across Japan.
5. Where to stay
Making the most of every aspect of your trip includes where you lay your head at night. Forget boring business hotels and mix it up with luxe hostels, capsule hotels and traditional ryokan instead. We have a full accommodation guide, as well as a rundown below.
One of the main things to decide is where you’ll be staying – check out transport links and have a read of area guides for bigger cities like Tokyo.
- Hostels: No longer (just) grimy bunks in shared dorms, hostels in Japan are a whole other level. Nowadays you can find hotel-style private rooms, beds hidden in bookshelves and perks like bike rental too. Here are some quirky Tokyo options to get you started and a list of our favorite luxury hostels.
- Hotels: Whether you want budget options or a night in a love hotel, we’ve got you covered.
- Capsule hotels: A real Japan experience, a night in a capsule hotel is a taste of the imagined future of the 1980s. And if that doesn’t sell it, nothing will. We have some options in Tokyo and Osaka, the home of the capsule hotel!
- Ryokan: The true traditional experience, ryokan (traditional inns) offer tatami rooms, futons, kaiseki meals and that famous omotenashi (Japanese hospitality) you’ve been hearing about.
- Airbnb: While the vacation home rental option took a hit back in 2018 due to law changes, legally approved whole homes and apartments for rent are freely available (albeit fewer than before). It’s a great option if you want privacy and a kitchen. Here are some great regular options in Tokyo and some more unusual and unique vacation rentals.
6. What to eat
Japan is a gourmet haven, and while everyone knows ramen and sushi, there are plenty of lesser-known dishes, like Hiroshima’s okonomiyaki or the Tokyo-staple monjayaki, that are equally delicious. Somewhat surprisingly, Japanese food is incredibly affordable. Here are some of our top tips to get your stomach rumbling:
- Our full food section with all the latest articles and restaurants in Tokyo.
- A starter guide for vegans and vegetarians and the top veg-friendly restaurants in Tokyo.
- We have a full guide to the Michelin scene if you’re looking for something fancy.
- Get familiar with the sustainable side of sushi.
- An introduction to the world of the izakaya, Japan’s rowdy restobars.
- Let’s not forget the drinks: we have an intro to drinking in Japan, a guide to the city’s drinking alleys, some foreigner friendly bars and the best craft-beer pubs in Tokyo.
7. Getting your yen
Despite the super-tech image, Japan is a bit old-fashioned when it comes to cash, so having yen is key. While cashless payments are slowly gaining traction, it isn’t anything like you may expect, and cards also aren’t accepted in the majority of stores or restaurants (usually only large or international chains). We have a complete guide to the best places to exchange currency, how to withdraw cash with a foreign credit card, and options if you’re looking to transfer money to Japan.
And if you want to know the ways of the yen, we have a self-proclaimed geek’s guide to the currency too!
8. Staying connected
Whether it’s checking train times, translating unexpected signs or finding that restaurant you know is somewhere nearby, being able to go online makes travel a lot easier. We’ve got guides to help you choose between portable wifi (weirdly popular in Japan) and SIM cards as well as all the best Japanese apps (from wifi hotspot keys to transport apps, food guides and more)!
9. Staying safe
Japan has a reputation for being a really safe place to travel. And sure, when it comes to leaving your wallet on a park bench, that’s true. It does, however, have serious levels of creeper crimes (groping, stalking and illicit photography, as examples). Not to mention a high variety of natural disasters, including earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, tsunamis, landslides and flooding.
We don’t want to scare you, but we do want people to be prepared in case the worst happens—be it an assault, a earthquake or a personal emergency. Getting travel insurance is an obvious start, but here’s our full guide on how to stay safe and a run down on what to do if you have a travel disaster (who hasn’t lost a passport at least once #amiright).
10. Final tips for a great trip
- Traveling is exhausting, so look after yourselves. Try and sleep well, stay hydrated (especially in summer), and make the most of the local remedies. There’s Pocari Sweat for electrolytes, face masks for revitalizing and onsen to relax in!
- Japan is slowly becoming more ethically concious, but it often takes some effort to get the best options. Consider our starter guide to sustainable travel in Japan, opting forsustainable souvenirs, and pickingalternatives to animal cafes.
- To avoid feeling as if you’re wasting travel time, think about how to make each element of your trip part of the experience. Pick capsule hotels and ryokan over standard hotels. Travel via bullet train for a journey. Try a strawberry sandwich next time you need a snack.
- That said, travel fatigue is a thing, and Japan can be overwhelming. Watch Ru Paul on that train journey, gather your thoughts in a Starbucks (neutral spaces are a haven sometimes), and indulge in an Indian buffet or a plate of french fries if you want to. Consider it a reset button so you can appreciate Japan even more.
Still have questions? Head over to our forum and ask away!