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Japan is my favourite place outside the UK. Having visited many times, I often get asked for recommendations of what to do. This page is a guide of what I think you should do if you visit Japan. It is based on things I have done rather than attempting to be comprehensive, but should provide some guidance for the first or second time visitor.
My last visit was April/May 2019 so it is accurate as of then.
The standard itinerary for the first time visitor to Japan is to visit Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima. This offers a good range of options in ultra-modern Tokyo, traditional Kyoto and the historical significance of Hiroshima. However, it misses out what I consider the best parts of Japan: rural countryside. I would still recommend visiting these three locations but suggest spending less time in Tokyo overall, instead visiting somewhere less urban. I include some suggestions below.
Japan’s seasons are similar to the UK and the temperature/weather in autumn and spring is basically the same. However, the summer and winter are more extreme with very hot, humid summers and cold, wet and snowy winters (extremes depending on exactly where you are). Late summer/early autumn is also the typhoon period so there may be storms. You can check for any warnings at JMA.
If you want to travel to see the cherry blossom then the official forecast is released in early Feb and usually runs from late March to early May. Expect heavy crowds at the peak times, so it may be better to view the blossom at the very beginning before it is even properly blooming or at the end when is going over.
Public wifi has improved significantly in recent years and it is now much easier to find free wifi around the country. However, you may wish to consider renting a 4G hotspot to carry with you for maps etc because mobile roaming charges are extortionate. I recommend eConnect.
English is not widely spoken in Japan so be prepared for few people to understand anything other than basics. This is particularly true outside of the main tourist areas. The main exception to this is Japan Railway (JR) staff who are usually fluent in English.
Whilst acceptance of credit cards is increasing, assume you will need to pay in cash everywhere. Large convenience store chains like Lawson, FamilyMart and 7-Eleven will usually take card without any issue (I have even used Apple Pay successfully there). Sometimes shops will indicate they accept your card but then it won’t actually work. Supermarkets are usually the worst because they tend not to be big chains like in the UK, instead operating as independent stores.
Take sufficient cash with you because foreign credit cards only work in the ATMs at branches Japan Post (JP) branches. That said, it is usually easy to find a JP branch wherever you are. ATMs at banks will usually not work with foreign cards. Also note that ATMs in Japan have opening hours and are not 24/7. A growing exception to this is in convenience stores which are modernising their ATMs to accept foreign cards. I’ve found acceptance to be inconsistent though.
Trains are the standard way of getting around most of Japan. Unless you are planning to stay in a single location for your trip, the Japan Rail Pass is the best value way to get around. You will instantly get your money worth on a return bullet train ticket from Tokyo to Kyoto which can easily cost £200+. The pass allows you access to all JR services which cover most of the trains you need. However, note that some trainlines are run by different operators e.g. some of the metro and subway in Tokyo, or lines to Nikko. You need to buy the Rail Pass advance and then “activate” it when you arrive in Japan. If you do this at the airport you can use it on the train into the city, otherwise you can activate it later. I recommend JRPass.
Google Maps has an accurate journey planner for all of Japan, Apple Maps is good in the major cities, and you can also use Hyperdia.
Note that train seat reservations are a separate “ticket” and whilst I’ve rarely had a problem finding a seat in the unreserved carriage (except during Golden Week), for longer journeys I recommend going to the ticket office and reserving a seat with your JR pass. There is no extra charge and it will avoid hassle. You cannot use the automated machines with the rail pass. Reservations are usually only crucial at peak travel times during holidays.
If you are going to spend any serious length of time in Tokyo or Kyoto it is worth getting a Suica or Pasmo card. These are available from small shops and machines at stations and are equivalent to Oyster card for the trains. Using a card is significantly more convenient to use public transport. Saves queuing to buy tickets. They also work at some shops and vending machines around stations. You can also add them to Apple Pay then ditch the physical card (you need to switch your phone to Japanese first).
Most stations have a left-luggage locker area with small and large lockers that you can pay to store your baggage for the day. They accept coins and often also Suica/Pasmo.
Only get a taxi if you have no choice. They are very expensive.
Convenience stores (konbini) offer a decent range of basic food which you can easily live on for a few weeks, although it might not be the healthiest. The best options are onigiri – rice balls with various fillings from roasted fish to pickled plum. These are cheap and filling. Beware of baked goods, which tend to have surprise fillings.
You will find these stores everywhere. The most common brands are Lawson, FamilyMart and 7-Eleven, although there are also a few other brands such as SunKus and Daily Yamazaki in different regions. They all offer basically the same products, with a few minor differences. They are open early to late and some are open 24/7.
Outside konbini, eating out is common and inexpensive. Restaurants are plentiful everywhere in Japan and some of the best ones are down small residential streets. They can usually be identified by fabric hanging outside a small sliding door. You may also be able to spot wax models of the food menu outside and most restaurants will have menus with at least pictures on, if no English menu. When you are ready to pay, simply get up and head to the counter which is normally by the exit. Japanese etiquette is such that you do not add a tip to the bill.
In cities, the restaurants exist on multiple floors of a building. The ones on the ground floor pay the most rent because of the premium spot for people wandering around but the best food quality is often up several levels. In the cities, most office buildings / sky-scrapers have a basement of restaurants and you may find restaurants on the top floors as well (have a look at the signs outside each building).
One of my favourite things about Japan is the abundance of tea. For basic tea that everyone drinks, the konbini offer a good range – try different options to find the one you like best. The most popular in Japan is Oi Ocha but my favourite is Iyemon Cha.
For the next level tea-drinker, Ippodo Tea is where I buy all my tea. They have a shop and cafe in Tokyo and their HQ is in Kyoto. I highly recommend visiting to experience very high quality Japanese green tea.
If you specifically like Japanese sencha then Sencha Do in Ginza, Tokyo have a tiny store where you can try samples and buy sencha sourced from small farms around Japan. They also have a small cafe in Sangenjaya, a residential area of Tokyo.
Finally, Sakurai Tea Experience is a tea bar that offers a high-end tasting service of a range of different teas and accompaniments. Their website is only in Japanese but they do speak English. You need to book.
Tokyo is a massive city that is spread out over a large area. It is also ultra-modern (in that there is a lot of glass, metal and concrete, often not very attractive) and you will easily find anything you need just as if you were in London. You can walk around but it is not “walkable” per se because of how big it is. I find that you can see everything you need to see in Tokyo in just a few days. Although I’m sure there are many more hidden things if you have more time, I prefer to explore the rest of Japan.
Hotels in Japan tend to be amazing (like high-end, traditional ryokans or the Hyatt/Aman mentioned below) or terrible. Japanese “Business hotels” are like a run-down Travelodge or Holiday Inn and can still be relatively expensive. Never accept a smoking room. If you want to save money, I would skip the generic business hotels and find a hostel or Airbnb.
My favourite hotel is Hyatt Andaz Toranomon Hills but it is unfortunately not cheap. You will also find the famous Park Hyatt from the film Lost in Translation. Also not cheap. Both do amazing Japanese breakfast so even if you don’t stay there, you may want to visit for breakfast! I’ve heard good things about Aman Tokyo, which is on my list to try.
If you are in Japan in late-spring or summer, I recommend taking advantage of your jet lag and getting out in the city early in the first few days – around 4am-5am. This allows you to explore incredibly busy areas as if there is nobody around. Shibuya Crossing and Shinjuku are really interesting to see deserted!
If you are interested in all sorts of technologies then visiting Akihabara – electric town – is a fun experience. The electronics stores and tiny market stores sell all sorts from automated toilets to tiny electrical capacitor components.
For an alt-culture experience, Harajuku is worth visiting. The best time is on a Sunday morning. Trying to walk down Takeshita Street directly opposite the station is a classic. Yoyogi park is next to Harajuku so worth combining.
Tokyo Skytree is well known as a great view over Tokyo but just like The Shard in London, it is overpriced. You can actually get just as good a view from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government buildings in Shinjuku which are free to go up to the observation deck and are open until 11pm.
If you are into Studio Ghibli anime films then visit the Ghibli Museum. You must buy tickets before you arrive in Japan though because they are timed/dated slots.
Finally, Asakusa is prime area for temples/shrines.
Kyoto is my favourite city in Japan but when you arrive you will initially be disappointed because it is not as traditional as you might expect, especially around the station! Kyoto Tower blocks all the nice views and the city itself is a maze of concrete and metal with no character or tradition. However, the key is to get out of the city itself. Once out of the centre to the various temples and shrines then you will find the tradition you’re looking for. There’s a reason why the Aman Kyoto is so far out of the city!
My favourite hotel in Kyoto is the Hyatt Regency but there are plenty of hostels and good options on Airbnb.
Kyoto Imperial Park is a favourite to sit in under the trees. It is also just a few minutes walk from Ippodo Tea and Nijo Castle is not far away. If you want to actually go in the Imperial Palace then you need to book several months in advance.
For a tea themed day out then head to Uji – just 20 mins from Kyoto central. This is where a lot of Kyoto tea is from so there are lots of tea themed shops and restaurants, although it is still a modern town, again with minimal tradition or atmosphere.
A rural alternative to Uji is to head to Wazuka. Obubu offer tea tours of their farm.
Just like Nagoya, Osaka is best for transiting through – I don’t recommend spending much time there. The one thing of note, however, is Spa World. It has several floors of country-themed spas (Asian zone and a European zone) and a water park with slides on the top floor. One zone is for women-only and the other is for men-only – which is which swaps over on a monthly basis. This is because everyone is naked, as is normal in a Japanese onsen! The top floor with the water park requires bathing suits though as it is for all genders.
Famous for the tame deer that wander the city, there is nothing else very special about Nara. Another generic, metal, concrete Japanese city. It is usually packed with tourists and unless you really want to touch/feed deer, I would avoid it.
Non-standard options #
If you want to get away from the usual destinations then I’d recommend the following:
I have taken my bike to Japan twice, back in the days when Virgin Atlantic used to fly direct to Tokyo and would carry sports equipment for free. The second time I spent most of the trip in Aomori prefecture in the furthest north of Japan (before you get to Hokkaido). I stayed in Hirosaki as used it as a base to cycle out into the countryside. They are famous for their apples.
Cycling in Japan is pleasant because the roads are usually maintained to a very high quality. Cites are less fun because there is essentially zero cycling infrastructure, but out in the countryside it is very quiet.
Aomori prefecture is a mixture of mountains and flat plains, so this is a particularly good place to cycle. The route from Hirosaki to Aomori takes you through some very steep inclines but is worth it for the scenery. It is also not too hot in the summer, which is why I went there.
The whole Tohoku region is a great alternative to the south of Japan. There is plenty to explore and I will be returning in the future.
This is the second smallest of Japan’s 5 main islands and the least populated. It is mainly mountains and valleys, including the famous Iya Valley. You can access it by boat either to Tokushima from Wakayama or to Matsuyama from Hiroshima.
It is quite sparsely populated so be sure to plan your trip carefully outside of the major cities but there are some good Airbnb options.
Access on the island is either by car or by trainline along the coast. To get to the mountains and valleys you need a car. However, a taxi tour can be arranged which is very good value and includes an English speaking guide.
The book Lost Japan by Alex Kerr discusses Iya Valley extensively and you can stay in his 300-year old traditional thatched house; they will arrange transport from a train station but be sure to buy supplies beforehand because there are no shops anywhere nearby!
If you go to Matsuyama then consider visiting Dōgo Onsen – one of the oldest onsen in Japan and supposedly the inspiration for the bathhouse in Spirited Away.
If you go to Takamatsu, another city on the island, then Ritsurin Park is worth paying for entry – it is one of the most famous historical parks in Japan.
Teshima Art Museum is en route back to the mainland if you are taking the train.
If you are really into temples and shrines then Nikko is convenient from Tokyo, although still quite touristy. However, most of the tourists go only for the day and there are some nice onsen hotels you can stay in overnight. It’s worth a trip up to Lake Chūzenji (via bus on a very windy road!) to see Kegon Falls, but not in the winter because everything is closed.
You will head through Nagoya on your way to/from Kyoto. Don’t bother leaving the station but if you change there you can reach Hida-Takayama, a small town in the Japanese Alps. This is good for hiking, especially in the autumn when the leaves are changing. The Hida Folk Village is nearby which has traditional thatched houses. These are especially nice on a snowy day. Shirakawa-gō is a more famous alternative (as a UNESCO World Heritage site).
Located near an active volcano, Hakone is a popular onsen spa town. There are plenty of hotels but my recommendation is Hyatt Regency Hakone.
The lake is great for hiking and exploring and you can also go on a novelty pirate ship tour.
Mt. Koya (Koya-san) is a temple-town in the mountains outside Osaka, with access via a 1h30m train and then a short cable-car to the top. You can book to stay in a temple overnight (with food included), which is a good experience. Weekdays are less busy than the weekends.