After two visits to Japan, we have only seen a fraction of this wonderful country, but as I am being asked again and again about our tips and experiences, I decided to start a series of blog posts with some travel tips. Let me start out with five things you should consider when you plan on travelling to Japan.
1. Plan & Book in Advance
Japan is not a very spontaneous place and it really makes sense to have everything planned out before you go. When we went to Japan for the first time, we knew of a few places we wanted to visit. So, for planning our round trip through Japan, I felt it was best to get a physical map, to get an overview of the whole country and how the places we wanted to visit could be connected into a round trip. If you are still not really sure about where to go, japan-guide.com is a great resource for planning. After entering the airport of your arrival and the duration of your stay, it will provide you with an exemplary itinerary for the whole trip.
Also, make sure to book most of your accommodations in advance. Especially, if you want to stay places that are nice and a bit special. Not only will those be booked out pretty quickly, but the Japanese are also not really used to visitors who just walk-in. We booked many of our hotels and even a beautiful temple we stayed at through Booking.com. Another great website is Japanese Guesthouses especially, if you are planning to stay at smaller guest houses – something I definitely recommend. Also, if you know of a restaurant you want to go to, check if you can already book a table!
2. Be Willing to Prioritise
Check your travel times and be willing to prioritise. It’s quite normal that you’ll want to see as many places as possible during your trip. For our first trip there were a few places that I desperately wanted to visit, but when we arrived in Japan, we realised that travel times to rather remote places can mess with your initial plan. Learning from our own experience, I suggest you focus and don’t plan on visiting more than 4 – 5 places within 2 weeks and check the approximate travel times between these places using HyperDia. You are on a vacation after all.
3. Get a Japan Rail Pass
This will probably be no news to you, but travelling through Japan by rail is just great. The infamous Shinkansen Trains take you all the 460 kilometres from Tokyo to Kyoto within just 2 hours! Japanese trains are always on time and super convenient. You can not purchase the Japan Rail Pass in Japan itself, but you will have to order it well in advance before your trip.
Once you arrive in Japan, you can exchange it for your ticket at the first station from which you want to travel. The Rail Pass includes rides and reservations on most Shinkansen Trains. You can book your reservations at the station – but even without a reservation, you will probably able to quickly find a seat on any train. Find more information on the Japan Rail Pass over here.
4. Pack Light
Take as little luggage as possible and leave some space for souvenirs in your suitcase. You will not need much travelling through Japan and it’s helpful not to have to haul a big suitcase or backpack on the Shinkansen. And, even if you run out of clean clothes, many hotels and hostels offer washers and dryers that you can use for a small fee. Check the weather for the places you will visit, the climate in Tokyo might be a little different to the one in Kyoto and pack accordingly. Japanese people dress pretty neatly, so you might not want to ride the Shinkansen wearing a track suit and you might want to wear something decent when you visit a shrine or temple.
5. Familiarise Yourself with Japanese Etiquette
Japan is the land of good manners and politeness. In order to avoid the biggest faux-pas, learn about Japanese etiquette before you go. The Lonely Planet has collected the most important Do’s and Don’ts on their website.
Additionally, it is helpful to learn a few Japanese phrases beforehand. The most important is definitely “Arigatou gozaimasu”, which means “Thank you”. Use it whenever you receive something, when someone helps you or when you leave a shop or restaurant. Believe me, by memorising this phrase you have already won half the battle. If you want to learn more, this downloadable phrase book by Boutique Japan will give you a head start.