Japan is a great country for travel, but it can be intimidating for first-timers. Especially if you are unfamiliar with the Japanese language or are a newbie traveller. A bit of preparation goes a long way in making sure you have a wonderful experience in Japan. Here are a few Japan travel tips I think will be helpful in making your trip successful, comfortable, and fun.
Book flights and accommodations early (especially during holidays and cherry blossom season)
The busiest times to travel in and around Japan are during summer, the end of the year, cherry blossom season, and Golden Week. You might not expect two random weeks in the middle of spring to be busy, but they are popular travel times for Japanese people and tourists.
Around the end of March to early April is when the famous cherry blossoms are in bloom. They are quite spectacular to see when you catch them at their peak. But a lot of people have the same idea. Parks will be packed, and hotels will be full in popular destinations.
›› Read how to take photos of the cherry blossoms with you iPhone!
Golden Week is the first week of May when basically the whole country has a holiday. It’s a time for Japanese people to do a bit of domestic (and international) travel, so same as above–places will be busy and hotels will be booked. If you plan to travel during Golden Week, book flights and accommodations several months in advance.
The end of the year is a bit of a strange time. A lot of people have time off work and go back home to spend New Year’s with their families. But many places and shops are closed for several days during the new year. Still, air travel is expensive, and you will want to book everything in advance if you come to Japan during end of the year holidays.
Get a visa
Depending where you are coming from and how long you will stay in Japan, you may need a visa. Visa HQ is a good website to find out whether you need a visa for Japan or any other country. Just enter your passport and where you’re going, and it will tell you if and what kind of visa you need.
Even if you are just coming to Japan for a short trip, don’t forget to register with your embassy. In the event of some terrible disaster, your government will know you are in Japan and provide guidance on how to stay safe.
Get travel insurance
Before discovering travel blogging was a thing, I didn’t know people travelled without insurance. I would never dream of travelling without travel medical insurance. For the last eight years that I’ve been out of Canada, I’ve always purchased travel insurance through World Nomads.
Get a Japan Rail Pass
If you are staying in Japan for anything longer than a few days, you will probably be going outside of Tokyo. There’s so much to see outside Tokyo, and I don’t recommend spending your whole vacation here. Though if you do, here are 101 things to do.
For those of you considering moving around the country a lot to see all the things, you might consider purchasing the Japan Rail Pass. It’s a 7, 14, or 21-day ticket that gives you full access to JR trains (including Shinkansen), buses, and ferries. It’s expensive though and not always a wise purchase. To figure out whether this is a good idea for your trip, check out this post on how to get the most value for your Japan Rail Pass.
Make use of local subway cards
A lesser known trick among tourists is the subway passes. These are rechargeable train cards that make it easier for you to get on and off the trains without having to buy a ticket every time. Each major train line has it’s own card, and while sometimes you can use them across different lines, it’s not always the case. You can even use them at some vending machines and to buy things from the convenience stores. For a complete guide on the different train cards, see this post.
City subway companies also often have day or weekend passes for a slightly discounted fee. So if you will be taking the same train company many times in one day, you could check out this option. Each train company will have it’s own rules and regulations, so ask a train staff if you can’t find it.
Japan is slowing moving into more credit card and debit territory, but it’s still very much a cash-based economy. It’s common to have several hundred dollars of yen in your wallet, and you don’t need to worry about it being stolen. (I still get a bit paranoid when I have to take the busy trains in Tokyo, though.)
Get used to paying in cash for almost everything. Some large restaurants and shops are probably fine. I often use my credit card in restaurants and in shopping malls, but don’t always count on it. I live here. When you’re travelling around as a confused tourist, it’s better to have cash on you, IMO. You might also be interested in how I keep a daily budget while I’m travelling.
Take out enough cash before you get to Japan as well, since not all debit cards work in all ATMs. For myself, I’ve only ever had luck with the post office ATMS, but I’ve heard that the ones at 7-11 work for foreign debit cards. I can’t personally vouch for this though. And keep in mind, ATMs are not open 24 hours. They often close around 10:00 PM or earlier and open again around 7 or 8 in the morning.
Get a phrasebook or travel app
A Japanese phrasebook or app is helpful for travellers who can’t speak Japanese. I’ve used an older version of this Lonely Planet phrasebook. Of course Google translate works ~most of the time~ as long as you don’t type in long, confusing sentences. If you love sushi and want to try all the different kind of raw fish, search for “Sushi Dictionary” in the App Store.
Prepare copies of important documents
This is just good practice when you travel anywhere. I like to have copies of my passport, visa, travel insurance, and any other important travel documents. If you ever lose your passport or something, having a copy will make it easier to get a replacement.
Pocket wifi or SIM
To use a SIM in your phone, it will need to be unlocked. Hotels and accommodations will more than likely have free wifi, because who doesn’t, but you’ll probably need to use your phones outside the hotel. There is free wifi in a lot of cafes and restaurants, though I never use it.
To be completely honest, I am not familiar with the wifi rental and SIM situation in Japan because I’ve never experienced it as a tourist. Instead I’ll direct you to this comprehensive post on phone and internet things by Inside Kyoto.
Luggage forwarding service
You might have a lot of luggage or a really big suitcase. You’ll soon find that the already cramped trains get even more packed when you have a people-sized suitcase at your feet. To make your travel easier and more comfortable, many companies in Japan offer luggage forwarding service. It’s really just the same companies who deliver parcels for online shoppers. The best way to have your luggage forwarded would be to ask your hotel to help you sort everything out. They will be able to take care of all the language things for you, and your luggage will meet you again at your next destination.
Pack appropriate clothes for the weather
Summers in Japan are very hot and humid, and winters are very cold and dry. June/July has the most rain because it’s rainy season. It will pretty important that you consider the weather for your time of travel. You will need to bring enough warm clothes in winter and enough loose airy clothes for summer. For an idea of what to bring for summer travel in Japan, check out this post. You can also download a complete packing list for Japan with special items for summer and winter here:
Japan travel tips and preparation
I hope this post has been helpful in letting you know a few things to be aware of when planning a trip to Japan. I wouldn’t say this is a complete list of all the things you need to know before coming to Japan. But it covers a lot of the preparation before you get here and immediately after. There are lots more Japan travel tips, so I will have to cover everything else in other posts.
For this post, a general theme is to prepare a lot of things before hand. Things like reservations, visas, packing, registering with your embassy, and preparing enough money are things you can do while you are still at home. Don’t forget to download your Japan packing list above and start planning your awesome trip to Japan!