13 Surefire Tips for Planning Your First Trip to Japan
Preparing for a trip to Japan can be more overwhelming than preparing for a trip anywhere else in the world. You’ve got to book a plane ticket that is often more expensive than flying to most other places in the world, figure out all the options for accommodations (a hotel versus a ryokan versus a minshuku or a hostel versus a capsule hotel), buy a Japan Rail Pass, figure out how to get money from ATMs and so on and on. But not to worry. Here is my easy-to-follow guide for preparing for your trip to Japan. Just follow these simple 13 tips and you’ll be good to go!
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BONUS: I've created a FREE detailed PDF version of this 3-week Japan itinerary. The guide also includes step-by-step instructions for buying and using your Japan Rail Pass.
1. Book your flight early
Flying to Japan from many regions like North America or Europe is NOT cheap unlike flying to Paris or Bangkok. I’ve seen tickets for Japan priced for at least US$1,000.
The best tip I can give you for buying your ticket is to book really early! After buying tickets for 3 trips to Japan, each time I’ve found that the best time to book your ticket is 6 months before your flight.
2. Plan your itinerary early
(Start at least 6 months before departure)
If you’re super indecisive like me, there’s going to be some pain involved in the next step: figuring out where you want to go. After doing some research, you’ll realize that Japan has way too many fabulous destinations. Tokyo, Kyoto, Kanazawa, Osaka, Takayama, Hakone, Sapporo, Hiroshima, Koya San, and on and on. It’ll be really hard narrowing down all the places you want to see in a 1, 2, or 3-week itinerary.
But if you start planning out your trip early and carefully enough, you can put together a Japan itinerary that gets as many stops as possible into it.
Here’s where to get some ideas for your trip:
Researching different travel blogs helped me tremendously in narrowing down where I wanted to go. Check out my 3-week itinerary for Japan here. It’s got some big cities like Tokyo and Kyoto, but also some beautiful natural scenery like the Japan Alps.
Lonely Planet JapanDespite the many complaints about the quality of Lonely Planet books, they’re still the best. Sometimes you can get the ebook version of the Japan, Tokyo, and Kyoto Lonely Planet books free with a Kindle Unlimited subscription. You can actually sign up for a 30-day free trial and then cancel afterward if you want. And sometimes Amazon makes free ebook versions of the Lonely Planet free for its Prime members. That’s how I got the Kyoto and Tokyo books free for my trip.
Here are some of my other favorite non-Lonely Planet travel guides for Japan:
Japan Guide Website
Another terrific resource for preparing for your trip to Japan is the website, Japan Guide. It’s a great site for knowing how to get from Point A to Point B and for what to see in Japan.
Official local tourism websites
Probably the best thing you can do to prepare for your trip to Japan is to visit the official tourism office websites for each individual city. They have a ton of useful travel information. Just type in a search engine the following information: (name of the city) tourism information or tourism board such as, “Takayama tourism information” or “Takayama tourism office.” Usually, the website comes up first in the search engine.
Festivals: Japan has tons of local festivals (called Matsuri in Japanese) and it’s a real treat to be in a location when one is going on. There’s, of course, the Cherry Blossom Festival, but there’s also Sapporo Snow Festival, Takayama Matsuri, Gion Matsuri, and many more.
⇒ Check out the official tourism website for Japan for information on local festivals.
Here are some helpful tourism websites:
♦ Takayama: http://www.hida.jp/english/index.html
♦ Visiting the hot springs near Takayama: https://www.okuhida.or.jp/en/
♦ Shirakawago: http://ml.shirakawa-go.org/en/
♦ Kanazawa: https://visitkanazawa.jp/
♦ Alpine Route: https://www.alpen-route.com/en/
♦ Matsumoto: https://visitmatsumoto.com/en/
♦ Nara: https://www.visitnara.jp/
♦ Hiroshima: http://visithiroshima.net/
♦ Hakone: https://www.hakone.or.jp/en/
3. Figure out the money situation
Here comes the really non-fun part: dealing with how you’re going to pay for all that sushi. But rest assured. It’s not as complicated as it sounds.
You’re going to probably get your Japanese yen from an ATM machine. Don’t listen to what Lonely Planet has to say. They make it sound like finding an ATM that accepts foreign debit cards to be like searching for the Holy Grail. It’s EASY to find them. They’re located at the 3 major convenience stores: 7-11, Family Mart, and Lawson’s. I don’t think there’s anything more ubiquitous in Japan than a convenience store.
Before leaving for Japan, you’ll need a debit card, especially one that doesn’t charge you international transaction fees and reimburses you for foreign bank fees. Most likely your bank card won’t do this. For Americans, Charles Schwab, though, does. You can open an account with them online and transfer money from your bank to their bank without leaving your home. It takes a few weeks for you to get the actual debit card, start on this at least 2 months before departure.
Finally, don’t forget to inform your credit card companies and bank that you will be traveling to Japan. If not, they’ll think fraud is occurring and cancel your card while you’re trying to pay for that 30,000 yen sushi dinner (US$27).
By the way, cash is king in Japan. You can sometimes pay for meals with a credit card but not often. You can pay for hotels and hostels with a card. Some taxis will accept cards but grudgingly.
4. Book Accommodations Early
Everyone says to book early for Japan. Hotels, hostels, Airbnbs fill up quickly, they say.
From my experience, it’s true for some places and some types of accommodations but not necessary for others.
The good places in popular cities like Tokyo and Kyoto fill up quickly. Also, ryokans and minshuku in touristy places like Shirakawa-go, along the Nakesendo, or in a popular onsen town fill up fast. Book early for these places.
Whenever you book, make sure you can cancel if your plans change. Places in Japan often had free cancellation policies.
I usually book on Agoda or Booking.com. But I’ve also found that these two booking sites are missing a lot of good hotels, ryokans, and minshukus in Japan. If you’re looking to stay at a ryokan or minshuku in a place like Shirakawa-go or an onsen town like Yudanaka, check out the website Japan Guest Houses.
If you’re willing to stay in hostels, Japan has got plenty so it’s rare that they are all full. Plus: if you book the night before, prices usually drop significantly.
5. Understand your accommodation choices?
Japan has a wide range of different kinds of accommodations: some western-style and other traditional and uniquely Japanese. Make sure you experience the traditional ones at least once.
Western-Style Hotels (US$75 – and higher)
Japan, of course, has lots of western-style hotels that you would find anywhere else in the world.
Business Hotels: A comfortable and convenient option is the business hotel where business people stay when traveling. These are usually part of chain of hotels that you can find in any city in Japan. Some of the hotel names I saw were Tokyu Stays and Hotel Dormy Inn.
The ones I stayed in were clean and conveniently located with very comfortable beds. Expect to pay around $75 to over $100.
Love Hotels: Japan also have love hotels where you can stay for as short as one hour. I’m sure they don’t need any further explanation.
Probably the most comfortable hotel I stayed at was the Hotel Resol Kawaramachi Sanjo in Kyoto. The Hotel Resol is part of a hotel chain found in other cities besides Kyoto. The one I stayed at was a brand new hotel located in the heart of downtown Kyoto next to the Nishiki Market and the Geisha quarter. I paid $75 a night.
Capsule Hotels (US$35 – $50)
Capsule hotels are a very Japanese type of accommodation. Traditionally, they were patronized by Japanese businessmen too drunk to make it home after a night of drinking, but nowadays, you’ll see lots of tourists, including females, using them as well.
Nowadays, they’re appropriate for women as well as men and a great place for budget travelers to stay. They often have separate sections for men and women.
You can book a bed in a capsule hotel through Booking.com or Agoda.
Traditionally, they were just capsule-like beds stacked on top of each other. The capsules had a reading light, maybe a TV, and a shelf to put your stuff. There were also lockers to store bigger things. But nowadays you can find capsules with more space than just a bed.
I stayed at Hotel M Matsumoto in Matsumoto, and it was different from what I assumed a capsule hotel to be like.
Men and women were in separate sections of the hotel, but you could also stay in a mixed-gender section. I stayed in the female section, which was securely locked from the rest of the hotel.
I got a little room with a curtain instead of a door to close off from the hallway. There was a desk with a lamp, a locker with a lock, and the bottom part of a bunk bed. The person in the room next to mine got the upper bunk. My bed had another curtain over it as well as a bedside lamp, radio, and a shelf to put my things. No TV.
The bathrooms were communal but were also stocked with everything imaginable: combs, brushes, curling irons, flat irons, hairdryers, lotion, face wash, body wash, shampoo, etc.
The Hotel M was a really clean, quiet, and comfortable hotel conveniently located a couple of blocks from the train station. It costs between $35 and $50 a night. I highly recommend it if you’re in Matsumoto.
Japan has tons of hostels. I’ve divided them into boutique-style hostels and traditional hostels.
Boutique-style hostels (US$40 – $50)
The boutique hostels are great places to stay if you’re on a budget but you really need your privacy and you value cleanliness.
In these posh hostels, your dorm bed includes a privacy curtain, a little bedside lamp, outlets for plugging in your electronics, a cupboard or closet with a lock and key, and a bedside shelf to put your things.
I don’t usually like hostels, but I stayed in a great hostel in Tokyo called the Wired Hotel in Tokyo. The Wired Hotel has both private rooms and dorm rooms. It was very clean and quiet and had the most comfortable mattresses of any place I stayed at in Japan. I paid $40 a night. I highly recommend it.
I stayed at another awesome hostel in Kanazawa called The Share Hotels Hatchi (picture on the left). The hostel was clean, quiet, comfortable, and conveniently located. The staff was friendly and the restaurant on the first floor served excellent food. I initially booked two nights at $40 per night, but I extended my stay another night at $25.
There’s a kitchen and maybe a lounge area that looks like they come from an Ikea catalogue. The above photo is the communal kitchen from the Share Hotels Hatchi.
The bathrooms and showers are also clean, stylish, and modern. The above photos are from the Wired Hotel in Tokyo.
The downside to these posh hostels is that because they offer so much privacy, you’re less likely to talk to other travelers, possibly making solo traveling even more lonely and isolating. I also noticed fewer organized activities in these boutique style hostels.
Traditional and less stylish hostels (US$20-$30)
The more traditional style hostels that you’ll see around Japan are more basic and cheaper than the boutique-style hostels.
Without a privacy curtain, they lack the privacy curtain that the boutique hostels have. Usually, it’s just a room with a bunch of bunkbeds.
The good thing about these more communal style hostels is that it’s easy to meet other travelers since no one is hiding behind their curtains.
I stayed at K’s House in Hiroshima. Unlike the posher hostels, I had to pay 100 yen for a towel. They had a cupboard to store my things, but I needed my own lock. The facilities weren’t as new but they were still fairly clean.
K’s House definitely had more information for travelers than the other more boutique style hostels I stayed at. They also arranged group activities, which the other hostels didn’t do.
Ryokans (US$65 – $200 – over $800)
Make sure you try staying in a ryokan at least once during your stay in Japan.
Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns. The 2 key features of a ryokan are that the rooms have tatami mats and futons. You’ll also have to take your shoes off at the entrance.
They range from basic no-frills inns to traditional inns with lots of character to super-luxury ones that make you feel like a queen. There are both modern inns recently built and old inns that are over 100 years old.
Some ryokans have hot springs on the premises. However, I’ve stayed at others that didn’t have an onsen but still called themselves ryokans.
The more basic ones don’t really have any other special services. You might get breakfast, but it won’t be anything to write home about and you’ll probably have to pay extra for it. You’ll probably also have to use the bathroom and shower down the hall with everyone else. I paid $65 per night for a basic ryokan.
The above photos are from the Rickshaw Inn in Takayama, a traditional ryokan owned by a Brit. The room cost $65 per night. I had a sink in my room, but I had to go down the hall for the bathroom and shower. The ryokan had a washer and dryer and a common area for people to relax in. This inn had lots of character, and it was centrally located. They served breakfast, but it was extra so I didn’t order it. To be honest, ryokans are great to try out at least once, but if your back really needs a soft mattress, they can be a bit uncomfortable.
Then there are more luxurious ryokans that you should try at least one time during your stay in Japan.
I stayed at one of these luxurious ryokans, the 120-year-old Fukuzumiro in Hakone.
Just like at the more basic Rickshaw Inn, I had a large room with tatami mats and futon. However, in this room, I was given a yukata (a robe), that I wore while walking around the hotel.
I also got a multi-course dinner and breakfast. that I ate in my room.
I had my own personal “maid” who served me my meals and turned down my futon while I was out of the room.
The ryokan also had hot spring baths for both public and private bathing.
Probably the best part of my stay at Fukuzumiro was the fact that the hotel overlooked a rushing river, which I heard all night long. It was so marvelously quiet and relaxing.
How to book a ryokan?For some cities, you can book them through booking.com or Agoda. However, for those in the smaller touristy towns or near hot springs, you can go through a website called Japanese Guest House. This is a great website with lots of information on ryokans. Just be aware that some of the ryokans in smaller cities do not accept solo travelers or they only accept solo travelers on the weekend. I’m glad I stayed in a ryokan, but I probably wouldn’t go out of my way to stay in one again.
Minshuku (US$55 – $80)
Another type of traditional Japanese place to stay at is the minshuku, a Japanese style bed and breakfast found in someone’s home. They’re usually found on farms in the countryside.
Like the ryokans, your room is likely to have tatami mats and a futon. Bathrooms are also shared. You might also get breakfast but not in your room like at ryokans. However, unlike ryokans, you’ll have to lay out the futon yourself and you won’t get a towel or yukata.
They are a great option for solo travelers who want to stay in the traditional farmhouses in Shirakawa-go.
I never stayed in a Minshuku during my trip Japan; however, I wish I had tried it out at least once.
Check out Japan Experience website for more information about minshukus.
How can you book a minshuku?
You can book minshukus through Japanese Guest House website.
Yes, you can camp in Japan. While hiking at Kamikochi in the Japan Alps, I saw lots of Japanese people camping.
6. Purchase a Japan Rail Pass
The next step in preparing for your trip to Japan is figuring out if you should get a Japan Rail Pass. For my first trip to Japan, it was worth it, but for my second trip, it wasn’t. You can read my post on getting a Japan Rail Pass to see how you can calculate the cost of your transportation to see if a JR Pass is worth it or not.
One important thing to know is that you need to purchase it outside of Japan and within three months of arriving in Japan. Again read my post on getting a Japan Rail Pass and I’ll tell you where to buy it, how to buy it, how to activate it, and how to use it.
7. Purchase tours and event tickets before leaving for Japan
7.1 Food Tours
I had some trouble finding tours that would accept solo travelers. I did finally find one for my trip to Tokyo.
I went on an excellent food tour of Shinjuku with Arigato Food Tours Japan. I highly recommend going on one especially if you’re a solo traveler because it’s a good way to comfortably visit an izakaya and the bars in Golden Gai.
Arigato Food Tours has tours of other areas of Tokyo as well like Shibuya, Shimbashi, and Tsukiji.
Make sure to contact the tour companies BEFORE your leave for Japan. They say they have tours every day, but that was not the case when I went on mine.
7.2 Cooking Classes
I usually take a cooking class when I travel, but in Japan, I didn’t. If you do, make sure to book before arriving in Japan. Sometimes cooking classes fill up quickly.
7.3 Sumo Wrestling Matches
You can buy sumo wrestling tickets on this website. I didn’t go to a sumo wrestling match because I wasn’t in Japan on the days that they take place on. Here are the months that have tournaments: March, May, July, September, and November.
If you’re not in Tokyo during a sumo match, you can also get tickets to watch sumo wrestlers practice.
7.4 Baseball Games
You can buy baseball tickets online.
7.5 Tokyo Sky Tree
You can purchase your Tokyo Sky Tree tickets ahead of time through Klook and skip the line.
7.6 Ghibli Museum
The Ghibli Museum is so popular and tickets are sold overseas only at certain times that you’ve got to plan carefully. These tickets sell out really quickly.
Here are the various ways to purchase the tickets:
“Tickets go on sale from 10:00 am (Japan time) on the 10th of each month for the following month (for example, tickets for July 1 through July 31 go on sale on June 10).”
You can buy tickets at Lawson convenience stores in Japan, but they still must be bought in the previous month.
- Voyagin – You can buy advanced and last-minute tickets at Voyagin but for a higher price than if you bought the tickets through Lawson.
7.7 teamLab Borderless Digital Art Museum
TeamLab Borderless Digital Art Museum is so popular that you’ll want to get tickets BEFORE you leave for Japan. It’s an art collective of artists, technologists, and mathematicians who design interactive digital art exhibits.
8. Rent a pocket WiFi
(1 month before departure)
Now for probably the most important question in everyone’s life: How can I access the internet?
You’ve got 2 choices: rent a pocket WiFi or get a SIM card.
I’d go with the pocket wifi because it allows you to access WiFi wherever you are.
Pocket WiFi’s are devices the size of your palm and as thin as a pencil that you can put in your bag or backpack. You can connect multiple devices to it. You just need to make sure to recharge the battery every day. Just enter the password for the wifi router onto your phone, tablet, or laptop.
How to order one?
I ordered mine online 3 weeks before my trip.
How to get the pocket WiFi in Japan?
You can choose to have the WiFi router delivered to your hotel, or you can pick it up at the post office at the airport you are flying into.
I picked mine up at the airport. At Narita, the post office is on the same floor the departure/check-in hall is on. Just ask the Information Desk where the post office is. I went to the post office and showed them my receipt. They then gave me an envelope with the router inside.
How to set up the Pocket WiFi
There were easy-to-follow instructions inside the envelope. I usually have trouble with technology, but I had no trouble connecting my phone to the WiFi router.
How to return the pocket WiFi?
When you leave Japan, pop the router into the self-addressed stamped envelope and drop it off at the post office at the airport before going through security. Make sure to give it to a post office employee. You’ll also get a receipt from the post office proving that you sent it. You should then get an email indicating that the WiFi router was received.
9. Upload apps to your smart phone
The ninth item on your pre-departure checklist for Japan is to upload apps to your smart phone. There are 3 apps that you MUST get: Google Maps, Hyperdia, and Navitime for Japan Travel.
1. Google maps: you CAN’T download google maps onto your phone for Japan, so you’ll need to use it with the internet. Having a map app on your phone while walking around is crucial because Japan has few street signs.
2. Hyperdia: The next must-have app is Hyperdia. You need this one for train schedules. This app is excellent!
3. Navitime for Japan Travel: You need this one for subway and train schedules for Tokyo and Kyoto. The locals use the same one but in Japanese. This app is excellent!
10. Get InsuranceNobody wants to think about insurance when they’re planning their dream vacation. But whether to even get insurance and what company to go with might be the two most important decisions you’ll make when traveling overseas. There are many different companies offering travel insurance. The two that I’ve found that work well are World Nomads and Safety Wing. I’ve used both, but I’ve never submitted a claim as I never reached my deductible. If you need to need to see a doctor in Japan, you’ll most likely pay the clinic or hospital after seeing the doctor. You will probably need to pay in cash. Save all your receipts because then you’ll need them to get reimbursed by the travel insurance company. You can read all about what happened to me when I had to see a doctor in Japan. How much did it cost me? Did I go to a clinic or an emergency room? Did anyone at the health care facility speak English?
11. Learn about Japanese food
You don’t want to return home only to realize you missed out on eating something really delicious like I did when I didn’t get a chance to eat at an izakaya or eat yakitori.
Plus! You want to make sure you know how to eat these dishes. It’s kind of embarrassing not to know the proper way to eat sushi (Don’t dip the rice part in the soy sauce!) or soba noodles.
Here’s the low down on what to eat:
- Ramen noodles
- Udon noodles (both cold and hot)
- Soba noodles
- Waigyu beef
- Unagi (eel)
- Kaiseki meal
- Tempura (especially shrimp)
- Tamagoyaki (egg roll)
- Curry rice
- and many more
Once you’ve done your research on what foods to try, you’ve got to concern yourself with learning how to eat them. And I don’t mean just learning how to eat with chopsticks. That’s only half of it.
Start with learning the proper way to eat sushi.
Note: only pour a little bit of soy sauce into your bowl and only dip a little bit of the fish into the soy sauce. Don’t dip the rice part into the soy sauce. EVER!
BTW, it’s also ok to eat the sushi with your hands.
Rather than me telling you what to do, watch this how-to video from Munchies on the proper sushi etiquette:
If you’re interested in other foods, just search on youtube for tons of other videos on Japanese food and etiquette.
12. Learn Japanese Culture, History, and Language
Tip #12 is to read up on the history and culture of Japan before your trip. Knowing the story behind a temple or a street will make your experience in Japan more meaningful than if you didn’t know much about the country beforehand.
Luckily, there are some terrific resources for learning about Japanese history and culture.
1. Start by checking out my list of novels set in Japan.
2. Visit the History of Japan Podcast to learn about Japanese history. Isaac Meyer has been putting out 30-minute podcasts each week since 2013!
3. NHK has a a great website that helps visitors learn about Japanese culture and Japanese current events.
4. Empires: is a great 3-part documentary series on the history of Japan that you can find on Amazon. It’s free if you have Amazon Prime.
5. I also love the youtube channel, Tokyo Lens. They have short videos on the culture of Japan.
Here are my favorite resources for learning the Japanese language:
Easy Japanese and Easy Travel Japanese: These lessons are brought to you by NHK, the Japanese Broadcasting Network.
Learn Japanese Pod: They have mostly podcast lessons. They’re entertaining and useful.
Duolingo: Another free website is Duolingo.
13. Get a Travel Backpack
The last tip is to get a travel backpack and NOT one of those rolling suitcases. The reason is that you will most likely need to carry your bag up and down a lot of stairs. This is especially true in Tokyo and Kyoto and at train stations all around Japan.
Sometimes you’ll find escalators and elevators.
But not always.
And sometimes you’ll be in such a rush to catch your next train that you won’t have time to look for an escalator or elevator. Then you’ll need to take the stairs if you want to make your connection.
Carrying a backpack will make those stairs so much easier than trying to pull a suitcase.
Also, if you’re bag is too large, you’ll need to check put it into the oversized luggage compartment on trains.
Here are two more must-bring items on your trip to Japan.
- Good shoes for walking – Unless you’re doing some seriously tough hiking, you can get by with some good walking shoes – I love Brooks Ariel stability shoes (wide shoes available) or On Cloudflyer Stability shoes (no wide shoes) for those with feet and knee problems.
- Power bank – The other essential item is a power bank that can recharge your electronic items. The reason you need one is that you’ll be using your phone a lot when you’re out and about and it’s easy to run out of batteries. You need your phone to help you find your way (street signs are rare in Japan) and to look up train, subway, and bus times and routes. I’ve bought two kinds: the lightweight Anker Power Bank with one USB port and the heavier Anker Power Bank with 2 USB ports.
Thanks for reading my 13 Steps for Preparing for a Trip to Japan! I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful. Is there anything else that you’d like to know about Japan? What are you most worried about? If you’ve been to Japan and I left something off my list or you’ve got a different opinion, I’d love to hear from you. Just leave a comment below. And if you can, I’d love it if you could share this post on social media. Thank you! And Sayonara!
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Looking for more on Japan? Check out these posts:
- Japan Itinerary: The Perfect 3 Weeks in Japan
- Tokyo Itinerary: How to Spend 4 Perfect Days in Tokyo
- Hakone Itinerary: How to Spend 2 Days in Hakone
- Kyoto Itinerary 4 Weeks: A City of a Million Temples
- Nara Itinerary: The Perfect Day Trip from Kyoto
- Matsumoto Itinerary: Exploring Japan's Coolest Castle
- Shirakawago Itinerary: Enter a Japanese Fairytale
- The Ultimate Day Trip to Hiroshima and Miyajima
- Kamikochi Hiking: The Perfect Day Trip from Takayama
- Takayama Itinerary: Travel Back in Time to Old Japan
- The Best Ever Guide to Japan's Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route
- Top 10 Must-See Places to Visit in Kyoto
- 13 Things You Need to Know Before Going to Japan
- The 20 Best Novels to Read Before Visiting Japan