Planning a Trip to Japan: ESSENTIAL Tips to Prepare for Your First Trip to Japan

Planning for a trip to Japan?  If you are traveling to Japan for the first time, we have put together a guide with everything you need to know to plan and prepare for your trip.

Planning a Trip to Japan: A Step By Step Guide

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When to Visit Japan

If you don’t have specific travel dates in mind, the first thing to decide is when is the best time to visit Japan for you.  Japan is a great country to visit year round but there are certain activities that are seasonal (cherry blossoms, autumn leaves, climbing Mount Fuji, skiing).

cherry blossoms in the spring planning a trip to japan

Also keep in mind that certain times of the year (such as cherry blossom season) are more popular with visitors. Be aware of visiting Japan during national holidays (including New Years, Golden Week in the spring and Ubon in the summer) which are busy travel periods for domestic tourists.

In addition to the usual busy travel periods, Japan will be especially busy this fall during the 2019 Rugby World Cup (September 20 – November 2, 2019) and summer of 2020 for the Summer Olympics (July 24 – August 9, 2020).

See related post: Best Time to Visit Japan to help you decide when you want to visit.

If you are visiting Japan during peak travel season, accommodation prices will be higher and it is important to book everything in advance.

Where to Go in Japan

There are so many incredible places to see in Japan, that it can be hard to narrow down where to visit in Japan if you only have a week or two.

If you are visiting Japan for only one a week or less, then I would recommend dividing most or all of your time between Tokyo and Kyoto.  We recommend staying at least 2-3 days in Tokyo and Kyoto which should be enough time to see the major highlights in each city.

See our day to day itineraries for Tokyo and Kyoto to help you put together your Japanese itinerary:

•  3 Days in Tokyo Itinerary
•  3 Days in Kyoto Itinerary

If you enjoy exploring at a faster pace you can add one or more day trips from either Tokyo or Kyoto or even a third destination such as Osaka. Some of the best day trips from Tokyo include the snow monkeys in the winter and Mount Fiji in the spring or summer.  There are many great places to visit from Kyoto on a half or full day, including Nara to see the famous deer or Osaka which has incredible street food.

See related post: 7 Days in Japan Itinerary for a sample 7 day Japan itinerary.

Booking Flights to Japan

The main airports for international visitors in Japan are Narita Airport (NRT) and Haneda Airport (HND) near Tokyo and Kansai International Airport (KIX) near Osaka (about an hour from Kyoto).

The wikipedia pages of the airports are helpful for seeing which airlines and routes serve each airport.  Make sure to compare prices across dates using Google flights.  If you know you want to visit Japan well ahead of your trip, set airfare alerts from websites like airfarewatchdog.com to receive email alerts when flight prices are lower than usual.

Tip: If you plan to visit both Tokyo and Kyoto like most first time visitors, I would check flight prices if it costs about the same to fly into Tokyo and out of Osaka (or vice versa) instead of round trip ticket from the same airport.  This will save you time and money on transportation not having to travel back to the city you came from.

Booking Accommodation

If you will be visiting Japan during cherry blossom season or other peak travel periods, it is best to book your accommodation as early as possible.

One of the things to know before traveling to Japan for the first time is that staying in a ryokan is worth it!

If your budget allows, we recommend staying at a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) for at least a night (ryokan are typically more expensive than hotels). While there are ryokan in Tokyo, some of the most historic and authentic ryokan are located in Kyoto, Nara and other small onsen towns. See related postWhat to Expect When Staying in a Ryokan for tips, rules and etiquette to know when staying at a traditional ryokan.

If you are traveling on a budget you can save money on accommodation by staying at minshuku (family operated, Japanese-style bed and breakfasts), capsule hotels or hostels.

Getting Around Japan

Deciding if you should travel by train is one of the first steps on how to prepare for a trip to Japan

Public transportation is very comprehensive and efficient in Japan so it can be a great way to explore Japan.

If you plan to drive a car in Japan, you will probably need an International Driver’s Permit (IDP). In the US, you can get an international permit from AAA.  Even if you don’t plan to rent a car in Japan, keep in mind that you will need an IDP to drive a go-kart.

The fastest way to travel between most cities in Japan is by train.  You usually don’t have to book rail tickets in advance except during peak travel days and times such as Golden Week, New Years and Udon.  To look up train schedules and prices visit www.hyperdia.com (there is also an app).

If you are traveling on a budget, you can travel between cities by bus instead of train.

Purchase a Japan Rail Pass Before You Leave

If you are visiting several places in Japan it might make sense to purchase a Japan rail pass before you get to Japan.  Traveling by train across Japan is fast but it can be expensive. Depending on your itinerary, the Japan rail pass can save you money over the cost of buying individual train tickets. The cost of a 7 day Japan rail pass is approximately equal to the price of a round trip train ticket between Kyoto and Tokyo.

Buying a Japan Rail Pass in advance is one of the things to do when planning for a trip to Japan

Don’t purchase a Japan Rail Pass more than 90 days before you land in Japan.  You will receive an Exchange Order, which needs to be exchanged within 90 days and activated in Japan for the actual JR Pass.

Some Activities Need to Booked in Advance

Even if you don’t usually plan your day to day activities in advance, there are a few activities that are so popular that need to be booked weeks in advance.

Activities that are best booked in advance include tickets to sumo wresting tournaments, the Robot Restaurant in Tokyo, Studio Ghibli Museum tickets.  Our favorite websites for booking activities, tickets and tours include Voyagin, Get Your Guide and Klook.  In addition to booking unique activities, Klook offers discounts on admission fees for booking in advance.

If you are interested in buying tickets to the 2020 Olympics, tickets are on sale now.

Plan How to Communicate While in Japan

You don’t want to be hit with super high cell phone bills for roaming charges using your smartphone in Japan. Check with your cell phone provider if there is an international plan to cover phone calls back or data roaming.

Another option is to unlock your phone and purchase a SIM card for use while in Japan. You can also purchase a pocket wi-fi router for your smartphone and other devices for under $10 a day.  You can purchase both online in advance and pick them up at the airport when you land in Japan.

Packing for Your Trip to Japan

Japan has hot humid summers and cold winters so what you need to pack varies according to what season you visit. I like to use weatherbase.com to look up average temperatures in the cities I am visiting.

If you ordered a Japan rail pass, make sure you bring the Exchange Order that will be mailed to you which you will need to exchange in Japan for the actual JR Pass.

Make sure to pack at least one pair of comfortable walking shoes (you will do a LOT of walking in Japan).  You are expected to take off your shoes at temples, Japanese guesthouses and traditional restaurants, so consider bringing slip on shoes rather than shoes with laces and be sure to pack clean socks without holes.

Hopefully this Japan travel planning guide has helped you prepare for your first trip to Japan.

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