Japan Tourism for Dummies: How to Have the Best Vacation Ever
Traveling to Japan doesn't have to be difficult. Check out these tips to plan the best Japanese vacation ever, regardless of time or budget.
Japan is one of the most exciting places to visit, but if you have never been there before, you may be feeling confused and a little bit nervous. You may not have a clue where to go, and you’re probably feeling especially in the dark about how to get there! Depending on your budget, any travel companions you may have, and the amount of time you are able to spend while overseas, your Japan travel itinerary could be vastly different from someone else’s, and that’s okay. The most important first step toward a perfect Japan vacation is to make a plan, and then to familiarize yourself with the basics of this exciting country. Simply follow the tips outlined here, and you will be touring Japan like a pro in no time at all!
Booking your flight
It is very expensive to fly into Japan from just about anywhere in the world. Although you may be able to take advantage of some deals by booking your flight well in advance, chances are good you will be sinking the vast majority of your vacation money on your travel to and from Japan itself. However, there are a couple of ways you can improve your flight expenses, and give yourself a much less stressful time of arriving and departing as well.
First of all, remember that there are two airports in the Tokyo area: Narita and Haneda. Narita is the much larger of the two, and it is the most popular airport in all of Japan. This means that, while it is very efficient, it is also incredibly busy all the time. It is also quite a lot further away from the main train station in Tokyo. If you fly in to Narita and then need to catch a train to head somewhere else, you will be paying around $25 extra on top of your initial travel fees just to get from the airport to the station! Choose Haneda for a much quieter, less stressful, and more affordable arrival airport. The ride from this airport to Tokyo Station should only cost you around $5 more.
If your travel plans are flexible, consider flying in to Osaka’s Kansai International Airport instead of beginning your trip in Tokyo. This may put you further away from the action, but it will give you the opportunity to tour interesting places other than just Tokyo, and you will have an even better chance of a stress-free, low-cost flight. Visitors to Japan do not fly into Kansai Airport very often, so it is much less crowded and less hectic than Toyo’s airports. Just remember that flying into and out of Osaka means you will need to adjust your itinerary accordingly!
Be sure to check out travel information on Kansai International Airport’s English language web site.
Getting around on the ground
Once you have disembarked from your plane and made your way through customs, you will find yourself in a strange country, surrounded by a language you possibly do not speak, and with no idea of how to get where you are going. Never fear! It is actually quite easy to get around in Japan, provided you plan ahead. Before you ever leave home, write down the name and address of your hotel in Japanese (or print it off if you aren’t able to copy the Japanese letters), and write it in the English alphabet as well. This way, even if you are completely stumped, you can show the name to someone and they should be able to point you in the right direction. Always keep this slip of paper on your person. You never know when you may turn the wrong corner! In the same vein, commit to memory (and perhaps to the same printout) what your home station’s name looks like in Japanese. When you’re trying to navigate a train station and choose the right car to board, you’ll be much better off if you can readily recognize the name of the station where your hotel is located.
Most travel throughout Japan is done by train. The vast majority of Japanese trains run on the JR (Japan Rail) network, but not all do. Train travel isn’t terribly expensive, but it can add up fast, so your best bet is to purchase a Japan Rail Pass for foreign travelers. This pass charges a flat rate and provides you with seven days of unlimited riding on Japan Rail trains. It is only available to foreign visitors, and most importantly, it must be booked outside of Japan. Do not wait to buy your pass after you arrive, or you will end up having to pay full price!
For around $375 a person, you can choose a seven-day JR Pass that includes luxury train cars. If you want to knock about a hundred off the price, choose the Ordinary Pass, which is the economy alternative. Japanese trains are always very clean and comfortable, so you shouldn’t have any trouble with an economy class train ride. However, if you are visiting with a large group, you may not be able to sit with the other members of your party in an economy train. And, of course, if you happen to be on a train in the city during rush hour, you may have to stand up and be packed into the car like a sardine.
When traveling on subways and metro trains that are not included in the JR Pass, purchase a preloaded train fare card. This will make it much easier for you to board your train and ride until you feel like getting off, without having to worry about coming up short on your fare. If you plan to do a lot of train traveling, choose the $100 (approximately) option and ride the rails to your heart’s content! If you do end up a little short on one of your trips, don’t worry. Simply inform one of the station employees, and pay the difference.
Try to steer clear of calling a cab. This is a very expensive way to get around Japan, and should only be used as a last-ditch effort to get where you need to go. If you are stuck and absolutely cannot figure out the trains, a cab may be your best bet. But don’t neglect trying to learn how to get around by train. It can actually be a lot easier than you might think!
Learn all about the Japan Rail Pass, and apply for yours, from Japan Rail’s English language web site.
Visiting the major sights
Whether this is your first time to Japan or you’ve been in the country before, chances are good that you’ll want to visit at least some of the most popular sights in the country. It can be very overwhelming trying to fit them all in, so begin by making a list of all the places you want to see, well before you ever leave home. Consider your list well, then organize it by “have to” stops and “maybe” places. This way, you’ll have options for filling in your itinerary if you have extra time, but you’ll be able to prioritize your favorite sightseeing spots much more easily.
Of course, no visit to Japan would be complete without spending a day or two in Tokyo. This is the quintessential modern Japan, full of skyscrapers, dining, night life, and people. If you are flying into the Narita or Haneda airports, this will be the first stop on your trip. However, if you have chosen the quieter route and will be flying into Osaka, don’t worry about rushing right over to Tokyo.
While in Tokyo, choose a few major districts to visit, based on your own interests. If you love gaming and electronics, go to Akihabara and surround yourself with the modern and eclectic. Or, if you’d rather experience the heart of fashion, style, and progressive culture, stop by Shibuya or Harajuku. Shinjuku, on the other hand, is the place to be for enjoying Tokyo’s party vibe and crazy night life.
Outside of Tokyo, there are dozens of other well-known places to visit all across the country. Make time for at least one Shinto shrine and one Buddhist temple in your travels. Choose the Fushimi Inari Shrine near Kyoto or the Miyajima Shrine near Hiroshima to fill the Shinto requirements, then head over to Todai-ji Temple and view the largest Buddha statue in Japan. Todai-ji is in Nara, which is a great place to spend a day anyway. While there, be sure to pay close attention to the sacred deer, which are very tame and have free reign of most of the area.
If time permits, visit Mount Fuji. Even if you are unable to hike all the way to the top, this popular tourist destination is a great way to spend some time while traveling throughout Japan. Another great place to visit if you have plenty of time is Sapporo. This is a snowy city in the northern part of Japan, and it is actually quite a long way from the rest of the popular tourist destinations. Nevertheless, especially if you are into the outdoors, this is a great place to spend a few days if you have enough of a chance to do so.
Head south of Tokyo and make a trip to Hiroshima if time permits. Hiroshima is full of history, and it is a very educational place to visit. It is a bit of a trek from Kyoto or Osaka, and will probably take several hours by train or bullet train to reach. However, spend a day in Hiroshima and you will find yourself much more understanding than you were before you visited. When you head back toward Osaka or Kyoto, stop by Himeji and explore the most famous castle in Japan.
No matter which stops you manage to fit in to your schedule, be sure to eat as many local foods and participate in as many local customs as possible. This trip is not just about ticking items off of a sightseeing checklist! More importantly, it is about learning what you can about a culture you may be unfamiliar with.
Frommer’s has tons of information on Tokyo’s various districts that can help you narrow down your Tokyo-area travel plans.
Making time for lesser-known stops
If this is your first trip to Japan, you are probably going to be much more concerned with seeing the popular sights, and that is definitely okay! If you have been to Japan before, however, or if you just prefer to get off the beaten path whenever possible, consider making some of Japanese lesser-known locations a part of your travel plans.
If you have the chance, visit some of the very small, very old towns that still dot the Japanese countryside. Head to Takayama, which is known for its incredibly old wooden houses and its relaxed way of life. This town, like many other similar ones, has lots of street vendors during the day and night, so finding snacks and souvenirs shouldn’t be a problem at all! After you have spent some time touring this town, pick a nearby onsen and enjoy bathing Japanese-style in the open air on top of a mountain. Remember that, at an onsen, you will be expected to soak completely naked in a gender-specific bath with strangers. Don’t be nervous!
If you love exploring natural wonders, make a trip to Mine City near the Yamaguchi prefecture in the western part of Japan’s main island. This part of the country is home to the biggest limestone cave in the country, and it is ready and waiting to be explored. Nearby, you can also tour the Akiyoshidai Plateau, which is home to hundreds of limestone formations jutting up out of the earth. The scenery here is different from anywhere else in Japan, and if outdoor tourism is of any interest to you, then visiting this area is well worth your time. Take a driving tour through the plateau, or hop out and enjoy one of several hikes. The public access portion of the cave is about 1 kilometer in length, so it isn’t a terribly long walking trail, and it is not too strenuous either. A successful walk through the cave will reward you with a beautiful view of the plateau above, as well as access to many of the plateau’s trailheads.
While you’re staying in Tokyo, if you need to get away from it all for a little while, take a short train ride to the Showa Memorial Park. This is a popular place, but it is nevertheless not on the main itinerary for most travelers, and so it remains much quieter than anything else in the Tokyo area. If you like, you can rent a bicycle for the afternoon and enjoy the dozens of bike paths throughout this large park. This is a great place to enjoy some local nature when you have had a little too much of the concrete jungle back in Tokyo.
One of the best ways you can find out about off-the-beaten-path sights to see is by asking the locals. Of course, this may not be the best way to explore the country if you have never been before! Regardless, you may benefit from giving yourself a few extra days here and there to allot for visits to local attractions that you might not have heard of before your arrival in Japan. Who knows? You might just uncover some hidden gem of a travel destination!
Mine City is home to several other outdoor attractions, all revolving around the limestone cave and the plateau. Plan your day ahead of time to see as much as possible.
Observing local customs
There are several local customs and matters of etiquette that you should remember to observe while in Japan. Although the country is very modern and up-to-date, and you won’t exactly run the risk of getting thrown out for breaking unspoken rules of behavior, it is still best not to make a name for yourself as a rude tourist no matter where you go. On the other hand, don’t overdo it. Be yourself, but be polite. There is no need to go to too much trouble to sit properly or make a big show out of greeting someone the right way. Simply do what you are supposed to, then go about business as usual.
Most of the time, if you are not from Japan, you are not expected to bow when you meet someone. You might nod your head, or bow slightly, to show respect without making yourself stand out too much. If you meet someone who is very high in authority, however, you might want to go ahead and try a full bow! Do not expect most Japanese citizens to shake hands with you, as this simply not the common custom that it is in much of the Western world.
When you first go to a Japanese restaurant, you may be surprised to find that the window is likely to be full of fake food! This makes it easy for you to point out what you would like to order, even if you can’t speak Japanese. Almost all of the time, it is polite to wait to be seated at a restaurant in Japan. Do not simply walk in and sit down like you might in some Western restaurants. Depending on the restaurant, you may be expected to take your shoes off before entering. It will be easy to tell if this is a requirement, because you will see shoes stacked in small cubbies by the front door! When the meal has ended, take your bill to the cashier, rather than leaving money on the table for someone to pick up. Try to pay in cash whenever possible, and remember that it is very uncommon for a restaurant to split a bill. Tipping is not customary in Japan.
Whether you visit an onsen or simply partake of a traditional Japanese-style bath in your hotel or other lodging, you are probably going to be expected to bathe the way most Japanese locals do. Bathing is seen as a way to relax after a long day, and soaking is just as important as washing away germs and dirt. Public bath houses as well as private, traditional-style bathrooms are usually separated, with the toilet and sink in one section and the showers and tub in another. They may even be in separate rooms. Never get into the soaking tub until you have rinsed your body thoroughly at the shower first. The tub is for relaxing, not for washing yourself. Carefully enter the tub and try not to splash around too much, then sit back and enjoy the hot water as it carries the stress of the day away from you. When you have finished, get out of the tub and return the shower for a final scrub with soap, then rinse off and dry yourself before exiting the bathroom. Every member of a household shares the same bath water.
In the other half of the bathroom, you may be met with a peculiar sight. Japanese style toilets look a little bit like a urinal placed in the ground. To use one of these toilets, face the front, where the hole is located, pull down your bottoms, and squat near the toilet’s front. Do your business, flush, and stand up again. These toilets are surprisingly still quite common in Japan, but you will also encounter Western style toilets fairly often. Western style toilets usually have heated seats, built-in bidets, multi-level flushing capacities, and they may even play music to hide the bathroom noises!
Last but not least, remember to use chopsticks politely while you eat. It’s okay if you have a little trouble learning how to use them, and a friendly local is likely to give you a hand if you need a demonstration. Never push your chopsticks down into your food, because this is a symbol synonymous with funerals. Instead, when you aren’t using them, place your chopsticks in front of you, pointing to the left. Do not use chopsticks to pass food from your plate to someone else’s chopsticks, and do not use them like a skewer. If you cannot break a large piece of food in half with your chopsticks, it is more polite to take a bite and return the rest to your plate than to break it with your fingers.
Toilets tend to cause a lot of concern for foreign travelers to Japan. Do a little extra research before you go so you know how to handle a traditional Japanese toilet.
By no means is this the be-all, end-all of Japan tourism itineraries. Many frequent visitors and even locals might argue that their plan is much better, and in the end, the choices are completely up to you and anyone you may be traveling with. This itinerary is presented for your consideration, and based on previous trips to this vibrant and exciting country. It is designed with a two-week travel time allotment, but you can always cut back on multiple days in the same place if you need to squeeze things into a shorter time frame.
Begin your trip by flying into the Kansai International Airport in Osaka. As previously stated, this is a better starting point than Tokyo because of its affordability and its less stressful environment. Do not plan anything for the day on which you arrive in Japan, but instead, take the time to familiarize yourself with your hotel grounds and perhaps a few blocks surrounding the place where you will be staying. Grab some dinner and enjoy the taste of local cuisine before getting some sleep early.
Days two through four
Travel from Osaka to Kyoto and take in the sights in the Kyoto area. Be sure to stop in the Kyoto Station and explore all the shopping, dining, and entertainment that can be found in this massive and incredibly impressive train station. Visit the Kiyomizu Temple, the monkey park, Kinkakuji Temple, the world-famous Zen garden at Ryoan-ji, or just take some time to explore the city streets within Kyoto itself. If time permits, head over to Himeji castle on one of your Kyoto days.
Take this time to visit Nara, where you can entertain the tame local deer and visit the giant statue of Buddha at the Todai-ji temple. Nara is full of local shops and dining experiences, and you shouldn’t have any trouble finding something to do in this ancient city that dates back to the year 710. It is definitely the place to go if you want to see as many temples as possible in a short amount of time.
If you have the time, take this day to visit Hiroshima. It takes a couple of hours by bullet train to reach Hiroshima from Kyoto, but it is well worth the travel expense and the time to spend the day in such a historical and educational location. If Hiroshima is a little too far, or if you prefer to visit other places instead, check out Himeji Castle, which will take about half of your day, or travel to Miyajima and explore the famous shrine with the floating torii. There are several ways in which you could spend this day, and it’s really up to you and your traveling companions to decide what you’d like to do the most.
Travel to Tokyo on this day. It will take you about four hours to get there from Kyoto, so combined with checking out of your hotel and finding your way from Tokyo Station to your next place of lodging, it may be in your best interest to give yourself an entire day for this travel. If things go very smoothly, however, you can always head out and explore Tokyo a little bit after you check in to your next hotel.
Days eight through ten
These three days should be devoted to making your way around Tokyo and taking day trips to nearby sights. Take one day to explore the popular Tokyo prefectures, including Shinjuku, Harajuku, and the Meiji shrine in the middle of the city. You can also easily squeeze in Akihabara and any other districts you would like to visit during this day. On another day, visit Asakusa, a historic district with a very well known temple called Senso-ji, or head to Odaiba, where you can soak in an onsen after a long day of travel. On your last day in Tokyo, choose from a trip to the Imperial Palace and the famous shops in Ginza, or visit the incredible national park at Nikko, which is about a two-hour trip from Tokyo. You might also like to go to Mount Fuji on this day, or you may choose to visit Tokyo Disneyland or DisneySea for a little Western style entertainment in the middle of your Japan excursion.
Days eleven and twelve
Take these two days to visit any other places you might have wanted to make time for earlier in your trip, but missed for whatever reason. Consider heading even further than Tokyo by taking a train to Ishinomaki, on the outskirts of Sendai, and then hopping on a ferry to the well-known Cat Island. This is a fun and unique way to spend one of your remaining days in the country. If you happen to have some expendable funds, you might consider hopping on a domestic flight from Tokyo to Sapporo and enjoying a couple of days in the northern part of the country. By plane, it only takes a couple of hours to get to Sapporo, but it is a 12-hour bullet train ride otherwise.
Days thirteen and fourteen
From wherever you have found yourself after the last two days, head back to Kyoto for a final chance to explore this this ancient city. Visit the Fushimi Inari Shrine, and give yourself at least half a day to explore the mountain on which it is located. Consider hopping over to Osaka a day before your flight and exploring the streets of this city, which is often overlooked by tourists. Get your things together and be ready to hop on your flight back home after you are finished on your two-week tour of Japan!
Japan Rail’s English-language web site has all the information you need to book your bullet train travel across the country.
Are you ready for your big trip? Pack your bags and get ready to make your travel plans! Remember not to wait until the last minute to plan your itinerary, as many places inside Japan require booking ahead of time, and you don’t want to get stuck with lodging or transportation in the middle of an unfamiliar country. A little planning goes a long way, so just remember these tips to help yourself have the best vacation to Japan ever!
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