Japan travel guide & tips
What to expect in Japan
Mystical, spiritual, bonkers and breathtakingly beautiful, Japan truly has it all. Embodying cutting edge modernity and ancient tradition, it’s hard to know where to begin.
Journey through Tokyo’s electric district, Akihabara, to rural onsen towns in the Japanese Alps and onto Okinawa’s dreamy Pacific beaches. Choose from sushi served by a giant robot at the famous (and totally bizarre!) robot restaurant in Tokyo, or a week hiking through the peaceful countryside to visit Shinto shrines or both! You’ll be guaranteed to find something in Japan that captures your heart forever.
We’ve compiled this Japan travel guide to help you narrow down on what’s most important for your personal adventure in this phenomenal country.
Japan’s great for:
- Rich and varied culture: Ancient shrines, traditional tea ceremonies, spectacular landscapes, hi-tech modernity – Japan never gets boring! Don’t miss out on an authentic sumo wrestling match, Japanese ‘Matsuri’ festivals (the Danjiri Matsuri ‘float festival’ in Osaka is amazing), traditional Geisha dance performances, and of course, a ride on the famous bullet train.
- History & temples: If you love to lose yourself wandering amongst ancient temples or like to be transported back in time, then you’re bound to fall in love with Japan. Visit the many Shinto ‘shrines’ and Buddhist temples and pay your respects. The iconic shape of a ‘Torii’ gate, standing alone on the entrance to the shrine, is something you must experience during your time in this mystic country.
- Anime Lovers: Japan’s whacky Manga and Anime industry is something you won’t be able to escape in any of the big cities. Be sure to visit Studio Ghibli and seek out a local, independent cinema where you can go and watch the latest feature film! It’s so ingrained into the modern pop culture of Japan, it would be rude not to!
- Gadget lovers: As for cutting edge technology, look no further. Ride the lightning fast ‘Shinkansen’ bullet train, or visit hands-on exhibits at the The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Odaiba, or the Toshiba Science Museum. Then, for after dark, there’s even a Sci-Fi themed cocktail bar in Tokyo, a secret gem we found during our travels there (…we’d recommend the Bumblebee)!
What's meaningful about Japan?
It’s easy to see why the Japanese people have a reputation for being some of the kindest and most humble in the world. You’ll be blown away by how clean the cities are as communities responsibly co-exist and take rubbish home; the underground is utterly spotless! It’s also one of the safest places to travel in the world; crime rates are very low and theft is extremely rare. You’ll see bicycles left with no locks on, even around the airport. Everyone seems to follow the rules in Japan and locals have a wealth of respect for themselves and their city. It’s extremely refreshing, and certainly adds something to the experience when travelling here.
Nature is abundant in Japan and, if looking after the environment is something close to your heart, travelling by public transport is easy peasy. You can get a hold of a JR rail pass which covers more or less everywhere in the country (including the famous bullet train!) and means you won’t need to rely on solo methods of travel. The cities are well set up for cycling, and more or less everyone has a bike. Cycling is not only a wonderful way to explore a destination, but it also cuts down on any carbon footprint. If you’re a keen cyclist and fancy yourself as a bit of a Chris Froome, there are also some spectacular routes and tours stretching the length and breadth of the entire country.
Japan also has a world-famous art, music and creative scene. You’ll discover absolute gems of artwork and sculptures, even on some of the most remote islands. Have you heard of the famous yellow pumpkin on the shores of Naoshima Island, created by famous Japanese pop-artist Yayoi Kasuma? If sound is more your thing, dive into the eclectic electronic music scene in Tokyo’s Shibuya district, see traditional dance performances in Kyoto, and listen to live local and upcoming musicians in Nagoya or Osaka.
Our top 4 Japan highlights
- Tech in Tokyo: Of course, no trip to Japan is complete without a couple of days in the true metropolis that is Tokyo. From robot cafes to Shinto shrines and neon lights (not to mention street food and sake!), it’ll be worth it, trust us.
- Time travel to Takayama: A spot that often gets missed out of the tourist trail, Takayama is one of our favourite towns in Japan. Why? It really is like taking a step back into Edo period Japan or into a Studio Ghibli film, with its traditional wooden houses and serene rivers.
- Gyoza’s in Kyoto: Kyoto offers another time-travelling experience, but is very different to Takayama. Here, there’s more of a tourist buzz, but you’ll still be taken back to Edo city life. Look out for historic buildings, Geisha’s in the Gion district, and the best dumplings around.
- Tranquillity in Koyasan: Ready to escape it all? Mount Koya and the region of Koyasan will treat you to incredible views, from Buddhist monasteries to ancient moss-strewn forests.
Japan essential information
Best time to go
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Travelling during spring and autumn gives you the most pleasant temperatures as well as cherry blossoms and autumnal leaves. Winter is still very beautiful in its own way, and also less busy.
It is certainly worth learning some basic Japanese phrases. English is spoken, but perhaps not as widely as other Asian destination.
Tipping is not a part of Japanese culture, and your kind gesture will often be met by confusion and polite refusal – the price is the price, why do you want to pay more?
Fly direct, daily
You can fly direct from London Heathrow to Tokyo or Osaka, daily. Indirect options are generally cheaper with stopovers in Paris, Amsterdam or Helsinki among others.
The currency of Japan is the Yen (JPY). We recommend using ATMs in post offices, international airports, AEON banks and 7-Eleven supermarkets – these are more likely to accept foreign cards.
Japanese language & culture
When it comes to the Japanese language, we’d strongly recommend taking a comprehensive phrasebook. The Japanese aren’t known to speak English as fluently as other places in Asia, and although you can get by in major cities like Tokyo, in more rural areas English is almost non-existent. As the written language is also formed of symbols, it can get a little confusing without some key phrases saved on your phone or in a trusty pocket book. This might save you from some awkward situations! Having said that, the great thing about Japanese is that it’s fairly phonetic to pronounce, so if you read from a phrasebook you’re very likely to be understood. Japanese is a complex language that takes foreigners years to master. This is because there are many ways of saying the same thing, depending on the context. We suggest just giving it a go! After all, the Japanese love it when travellers make the effort and it really pleases them to speak their language with you. Watch out though, one phrase commonly leads them into thinking you’re fluent (…it can become quite a comical exchange, take our word for it!). It’s worth learning the right phrase, “I don’t understand!” as you’ll probably need it (see our key phrases below).
Japanese culture is traditionally centred around the concept of respect and honour, and this gives the Japanese a commitment to being genuine and authentic people. You’ll find them to be very charming and endearing, and will rarely ever be left without someone going out of their way to be kind to you, and provide the highest level of service. They love their gadgets and technology, however, most also seem to have a beautiful and deeply grounded sense of appreciation for nature and the ancestral history of their country.
The bow is a very prominent gesture that you’ll encounter in Japan. It can be a little confusing at first but generally, we go with the rule that if you say “hello,” “thank you” or “goodbye,” a gentle bow is a good idea.
The Japanese also love a hot spring, or ‘Onsen’, and part of staying in Japan is making sure you get to experience this absolute treasure. Pop on your cotton Kimono, slip on your ‘Tabi’ socks (with a split so can be worn with traditional sandals), and mosey on down to the Onsen spa. It’s customary for men and women to be segregated as you enter the Onsen completely naked. Then, it is the etiquette to wash thoroughly, before slipping into the hot mineral water pools and chilling out. Nothing beats it after a long day, and then you’re ready to crawl into bed, totally refreshed and clean. Suffice to say, you’ll miss it when you return home!
Key Japanese phrases to know
Arigatou gozaimasu – Thank you
Onegaishimasu – Please
Sumimasen – Excuse me
Iie – No
Gomen Nasai – I’m sorry
Wakarimasen – I don’t understand
Totally Japanese words:
Kawaii! – Cute!
Bigaku – No exact word translation but it means ‘A love for aesthetically pleasing/admirable/cute/attractive things’
Ukiyo – This one word translates to “floating world” and encapsulates the feeling of being totally present, unaffected by the stresses of the world and simply deep into that exact moment. Something we are sure you will experience frequently during your travels in Japan!
Weather in Japan
Japan is very seasonal, and depending on your interests, you’ll need to be careful with deciding when you want to visit. Given its subarctic location in the North, it can be extremely cold in Winter, providing some of the best powder snow in the world. This makes it a haven for skiers the world over.
Spring brings the cherry blossom season, which is one of the most iconic Japanese experiences. Everyone has seen images of the beautiful pink blooms that blanket the country for a few weeks every year, probably one of the most serene and beautiful events to experience in the world. Though with it comes greater numbers of tourists, so it’s worth booking well ahead.
The summer, especially in the Southern islands, brings some of the best sunshine and heat for Japan’s palm-lined, white-sand beaches. Go exploring around the Pacific side beaches that litter the archipelago of Islands that make up Japan.
Autumn brings ‘Koyo’, a famous period in which the leaves transform from vibrant greens to passionate reds, yellows and oranges. Flocks of people travel across the world just to witness this beautiful natural phenomenon. Just looking at the photos of each seasonal landscape will transport you into the other-worldly aura Japan has. It’s probably our favourite time to go!
Food in Japan
Food in Japan is delish… so let the mouth-watering commence! From humble rice-based street food and warming Ramen bowls to lavish sushi bar-restaurants, food in Japan is something to get truly excited about. We’d personally recommend the female-owned and run Nadeshiko Sushi restaurant in Tokyo’s Akihabara area, with all-female sushi chefs, they’re incredibly friendly to tourists and create some of the best Sushi in Tokyo!
Vegetarian & vegan food in Japan
Vegetarians and vegans will find a lot that pleases them, but just be aware that attitudes to meat and fish can be very different to that of western countries. It’s always worth researching the names of things that you can or can’t eat. The big cities will cater to you easily but it could be trickier in rural areas. Vegetarians will find it easier than vegans to find something to chow down on (so nothing new there eh, Vegang!), as a lot of snacks are egg-based. The Japanese are a big fan of tofu, fresh vegetables and mushrooms so just be brave and ask, as they will always, in true Japanese nature, go out their way to find you something which suits. It’s common for education around veganism and vegetarianism to be quite minimal in some areas of Japan, and you may find that they don’t consider fish to be meat. Your best bet is to practice some key phrases that you’re comfortable with, which outline your specific needs as clearly as possible. Learn more about Japanese food.
In the cities, you’ll find western restaurants and firm favourites, but we would recommend finding truly authentic places to eat. Even if you have to point, smile and bow instead of speaking if there’s no English on the menu. Your bravery will reward you with culinary delights! Sometimes it’s not always crystal clear what things are, so prepare to play the famous ‘Japanese food roulette’… Either way, you’ll end up with some good stories to tell upon your return.
Are you gluten-free? Read our coeliac guide.
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Things to watch out for in Japan
It’s easy to get lost in Japan, given that the signs and directions are written in Japanese a lot of the time. The subway in Tokyo is notoriously like a riddle and may leave you staring at the map blankly. To avoid any unnecessary confusion, we suggest researching the routes and lines you need to take, before setting out. This will serve you well as it can be hard to find attendants around and they don’t always speak English.
Also, despite being famed for its hight-tech innovations, Japan’s train ticket machines are often pretty dated and confusing. So the more you have prepared, the better chance you have of not getting frustrated or buying the wrong tickets.
Food in Japan is labelled very differently to the West, so if you have certain food requirements or allergies, prepare a printed and handwritten list in Japanese. You can use this to show in a shop or restaurant. Google Translate app doesn’t always work when the packaging is essentially like a Manga poster!
Japan has very specific etiquettes, manners and expected behaviours when it comes to certain things. Don’t let this intimidate you though, they are usually easily learned and most of them are simply common sense courtesy. Like when travelling anywhere, offending people is possible. However, as a traveller, you are generally awarded a level of leniency, and by simply being aware and researching anything you aren’t sure about, you’re very unlikely to end up in a negative situation. The most notable etiquette to be aware of is taking your shoes off when entering a home or building; it will usually be clear when it’s appropriate to do this, but keep an eye out for the shoe racks on the side. Bowing is polite, both when greeting and thanking people, and two hands should be used when exchanging business cards or gifts. There is also a clear code for how to use Onsen spas, and how to behave in temples.
Don’t forget that if you are venturing off into rural areas, the heating is not what it will be in major cities. It can drop to low temperatures at night and when sleeping on a traditional futon bed on the floor it can get chilly! It’s never a bad idea to take some thin thermal or cotton pyjamas and thick socks to avoid any sleepless nights, especially in the winter.
Learn more about Japan
Meet Frazer and Emily, two British travellers living in Japan with a passion for food. Here are their favourite places serving up food loved by Tokyo's locals!
Prepare to spend around ¥1000-3000 per meal, so a good idea is to budget ¥10000-15000 depending on your tastes.
As anywhere, you can spend very little, or go wild on food, it depends on your budget. Japan is amazing for affordable simple food, and street food will cost you a little amount of yen. A lot of the street food is very eat-and-walk friendly, little Nori wraps and Inari, so good for when you’re on the go or wrapping up for later. But be aware that in some places, it is frowned upon to eat while walking the streets.
Prepare to spend around ¥1000-3000 per meal, so a good idea is to budget ¥10000-15000 depending on your tastes.
Your accommodation will usually provide one meal as part of the board, so this can also help manage costs. Ryokans and traditional guesthouses or ‘Pensions’ will provide mostly local Japanese food, and can be one of the best things about travelling around Japan. They are most likely family run, so will be a nice introduction to the culinary flavours of Japan. Your meal will arrive as a group of little bowls and plates of various delights, and even a little stove under a traditional clay ‘Donabe’ pot to cook things on yourself. Kawaii!
Shopping in Japan
What can’t you buy in Japan is the real question! You’ll find Tokyo is organised in ‘districts’, where there are specific areas for certain types of products or goods.
For example, Akihabara is the electronic district, Harajuku is most definitely the pinnacle of cutting edge and streetwear fashion, and Shibuya or Ginza areas have all the expected luxury and high street stores.
Nishiki Market is famous for street food ‘walking and eating’ in Kyoto, and all the major other cities will have you supplied with everything from vintage antiques, Japanese tailors and dressmakers, to modern fashion stores.
Vintage markets and flea stores are very popular in Japan and are found everywhere, so be sure to get your rummaging hands ready to find some bargains. In Tokyo, you’ll find them everywhere and there’s also a big culture for the second-hand designer and streetwear items, so if you are partial to a trendy garment whilst recycling fashion to save the planet, you’ll be spoilt for choice!
Brief history of Japan
Japan’s rich ancestral history is filled with tales of Emperors, Shoguns, Samurais and Daimyo, all fighting for and protecting sacred land. Much of it brutal, Japan has also endured many invasions from the Mongols, and in many later years the Americans in Pearl Harbour during the second world war. You’ll find many historical sites in Japan, some from its marred history and many as statements of it’s more peaceful times.
Japan’s current political system is a western-style democracy which is voted through in parliament (originally based on the UK’s parliamentary system).
They have a monarchy, Emperor Naruhito, who was crowned following the abdication of his father very recently in April 2019, making him the 126th Monarch in the ‘Order of Succession’ in Japan.