TABLE OF CONTENTS
- Japan Travel Guide Basics: just the basic information you need to know
- When to Go: seasonal trips, tourism calendar, weather, safety
- Where to Go: local establishments that can be found in a particular area
- What to Do: specific things you have to do when you’re traveling there
- Where to stay: hotels, hostels, apartments, and Airbnbs
- What to eat: restaurants, top street foods, convenience stores/groceries
- Getting around: how do you travel in that country
- Itinerary: a budget scale for budget, mid-range and luxury price brackets
- What to Bring: What to wear, navigation tools, gear, and money
- Gadgets and Tools: Apps that will be useful in his travels
- Money: How to Transact, conversion of currency and availability of ATMs
Japan Travel Guide Basics
Japan is more than what meets the eye and beneath its restless crowds and constant innovation, there lies a country that has preserved its traditions while simultaneously making its mark on the 21st century. The Moonfish's Japan Travel Guide introduces you to the remote places in the country alongside those sights that you know and love.
Our navigation of Japan consists of going through its four major islands: Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku and Kyushu and the areas of its distinct culture and natural resources. Hokkaido is located in the Northernmost of Japan; it is known for its hot springs, snow festivals, and rich wildlife. The best regions to visit are Asahikawa, Obihiro, Otaru, and Sapporo. This part of Japan embraces the integration of urban life with those of nature. Although this is observed throughout the country Hokkaido has its fair share of waterfalls, plains, and harbors.
Honshu is the largest island in Japan and is the most familiar to travelers. The island comprises 34 prefectures from 5 regions, including the Tokyo and Kyoto prefectures. Other regions that are eager tourist capitals are Akita, Fukushima, Miyagi, Chiba, Saitama, Aichi, Toyama, Kansai, Nara, Osaka, Hiroshima, and Okayama.
Honshu is known for its urbanization, tourism, commerce, and agriculture. Naturally, most of the population is centralized in the cities. In short, this is where it’s all happening. Locals and tourists gather in the cities’ monuments and parks where communities are in proximity to one another.
Kyushu is the island to the South of Honshu, where the tectonic activity takes place. While we are aware that Japan is a volcanic island, the tectonic activity in this region is far more active. Like Hokkaido, several hot springs are located here as well as their most active volcano, Mt. Aso. Excluding their ancient provinces, Kyushu’s prefectures include Fukuoka, Miyazaki, and Okinawa. From its end until Ryuku, this part of Japan experiences a predominantly subtropical climate, which explains the good numbers of beaches and oasis around the area.
The Ryukyu arc is the extension of Kyushu towards Taiwan. As the islands go over the Pacific, the humidity levels increase and there is less (hardly any) snow. The climate in these regions is similar to Hawaii and it takes an immense amount of traveling via ferry or helicopter to these islands.
Enjoying Japan means that you should not limit yourself to knowing one part of it. We encourage the exploration of the regions that are off the beaten path to find hidden finds and more meaningful experiences.
Japan itself is a massive feast for the senses. The sights to see, the foods to eat and the very way the Japanese lifestyle is associated with cleanliness, innovation, and technology are enough to make you explore more.
When To Go
Unlike Europe, Japan does not have tourist seasons. There are only the seasons (Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall) and the holiday seasons that are based on other countries’ holidays: these are year-end celebrations (Christmas and New Year) and Chinese New Year. Observing travel patterns, the times where tourism is particularly strong, from both locals and foreign travels, are during Cherry Blossom Season and Golden Week.
Cherry Blossom Season is a popular time when the Japanese cherry goes into full bloom and marks the familiar scene of pink fields and flying petals. This lasts for two weeks (Late March to the middle of April) and during this time, people from all over Japan and outside of it visit Tokyo and Kyoto for their maximum brilliance. Golden Week, on the other hand, is a cluster of four national holidays that occur in a week. Most Japanese citizens, therefore, have a week-off daily work and this happens from late April to early May.
Note that these holidays are when the tourists are likely to come in. Prices increase and trains and plains have more tourists. Going to Japan during these times could be tricky or an adventure, depending on how you look at it since there are travel agencies and lodgings that drop prices. It’s all about looking for the best deals.
Obon Week is another anticipated tourist season. While not as known as the cherry blossom, it is a favorite of those who seek to engage in the cultures of the rural regions. Obon Week is specifically celebrated by the Japanese in August, highlighted by their Buddhist customs. Lanterns are set up in front of houses to guide spirits as they return to visit the living. Apart from the lights lining up the street, there are celebratory offerings in front of temples. For tourists that are curious about the spiritual aspect of Japan, this is an equally joyous time.
But if you’re looking for a trip to tranquil sightseeing, you may want to consider visiting during quieter seasons. This is when you can just look around and absorb the country’s raw beauty, savoring it at a leisurely pace. The seasonal visit presents itself regionally; some regions shift to the climate earlier than others.
If it is your first time, Cherry Blossom Season has got to be one of the best times to see Japan, especially in the city. Not only should you visit because of the sakura, but there are also more activities made for tourists during this time that make the most of the seasonal tree. There are bike tours, picnics and river cruises exclusive to these two to three weeks.
Budget: A seasonal visit can mean a seasonal day tour. Day tours are excursions around a particular place or event for several hours (6 to half a day) that includes a tour guide and a mode of transportation. Affordable ones cost less than 20,000Y ($200).
Where To Go
For this guide, we would want to go beyond the places that you know and love. Japan has its hidden trails and we are keen to present to you the regions that you may want to think of visiting once you get there. Places of interest will be noted on every island that includes the tourist attractions and the celebrations.
The Best of Hokkaido
Sapporo is the largest city in Hokkaido and the fifth-largest in Japan. It is lined with national parks and quasi-national parks that deserve a visit. It can easily be the Tokyo of the North with its beer and snow festivals.
Sapporo Snow Festival (Sapporo)
An annual event that starts in February and maximizes the snow in the winter season. Some 300 to 400 ice statues are carved while 9 international teams participate to come up with a winning ice sculpture. The snow festivals have three sites: Odori, Susukino and Tsudome. In the festival’s region, food from different parts of Sapporo and Hokkaido are brought for the locals and tourists to enjoy. Apart from its Snow Festival, the Lilac Festival, Yosakoi Soran Festival, Summer and Autumn are some of the events lined up that are equally enjoyable.
Apart from the North’s capital city, Furano districts are prime winter tourist destinations. There’s the Furano Ski Resort that attracts tourists once the snow starts. As summer begins, see the beauty of the Blue Pond (Aoiike), a thermal spring unique to Furano as its waters are bright blue due to its natural minerals. The hues change depending on the season that it is in.
Drive a little further and you will arrive in the town of Biei that is known for its flora rolling hills. The plains are planted with flowers of vibrant colors; once it gets hit by the sun, the park is shown to be a rainbow of brilliance. Grown as the same tradition as these flowers are its famous Lavender Fields. Lavender has been grown in Japan since the 1960s and it is kept alive by farmers who have continued to plant several varieties of the herbs annually. The best time sees these flower farms are during the summer months, late June to mid-August. Other sites in Hokkaido are Matsumae (that has the Matsumae Castle) and Otaru (Hokkaido’s harbor city) with their Lights Festival, Sakaimachi Street and Otaru Canal. Have some ideas for where to go in the region here.
The Best of Honshu
Northern Honshu is Tohoku - that constitutes the prefectures of Akita, Miyagi, Aomori, and Fukushima. But before those, savor in the beauty of Iwate prefecture has a picturesque scenery of tropical gorges and volcanic rocks where summer and winter meet. There are sea coastlines that can tickle your fancy when coming here. The Sanriku Coast is a coastline that covers the prefectures of Aomori, Iwate, and Miyagi. At its base where land meets the sea, the Michinoku Coastal Trail gives you a safe viewing distance that gives you access to roads.
Iwate is the place of another popular tourist attraction: the restaurant Azumaya that holds the 300-year-old Wanko-soba challenge where you are tested on the number of udon noodles you can consume in one eating. You are also welcome to visit the Buddhist temples that are scattered across the area. Akita is also a place of culture. Their rice-farming and brewery encourage the next generation to continue the custom while tourists enjoy their famous sake.
The Two Capital Cities: Tokyo and Kyoto
Tokyo is the capital of Japan and the most populated city in the world. It has countless attractions and is one of the most visited capitals in Asia and the world. We have the sought-after ones listed below:
Hiroshima Prefecture comprises these five (5) notable destinations: the capital Hiroshima, Miyajima, its port town Onomichi,Tomonoura and Fukuyama. The unique vibrancy of these locations lies within the proximity of the mountains, sea, and city with its integration of metropolitan life. Its relaxing pace of travel is similar to that of Kyoto but the traveler spends more time appreciating the modernity of leisure activities such as sight-seeing and eating.
A two-hour Shinkansen travel away, Kyoto is the best place to be based next to Tokyo in Honshu - if considering city life. Downtown Kyoto is within walking distance from shops and bars, restaurants and the city’s train lines and subway lines. All over the city, you will see Japanese adorned with their traditional kimonos, traditional Japanese food and wooden temples with Zen gardens.
Outside Tokyo and Kyoto
Hiroshima has located 811 km (9 hours) from Tokyo and is a spectacle, most especially at night. Since it has enclosed its tourism within the prefecture, local and international tourists can engage with the culture directly. Hiroshima City is well-known for its shopping street, Hondori Shotengai and is a must-see for tourists even if you don’t plan on buying anything. It is filled with goods and general shops that are exclusive to the capital.
Wazuka is a part of Kyoto prefecture that specializes in the cultivation, harvest, selling and growing of tea, it has a population of under 4,000 and the majority of the families in this area are involved in the craft. The town is said to have the ideal weather conditions for green tea production. If you want to be involved in something other than tea, there are also sports parks and shrines for your fancy such as Kontaiji and Bisha-manji Temple.
Kyushu and the Islands
Fukuoka is approximately 5 hours from Tokyo. It is found in the southern part of Japan and the northern part of the island of Kyushu. This city is the fusion of old Fukuoka and the port town of Hakata. Apart from their signature ramen, it is home to scenic views of the sea.
Okinawa prefecture is a group of islands near the coast of Taiwan. Its largest city is Naha and within the capital of the Ryukyu Kingdom lies its economic and cultural hub. International Street or Kokusai Dori is lined with souvenir shops and is near a public market where fresh seafood is sold. The Shuri Castle is a historical castle with walls that are near Naha.
Okinawa island is the home of cosmic dragon boat races and parades and is a perfect place for destination weddings. It would be interesting to see how tropical Japan compares to its mainland as it evokes a more rustic island culture. Its other islands are composed of the Kerama Islands, Ishigaki islands and Miyako-Jima Island.
The Izu Peninsula is a sight to behold with its crystal waters and white sand. It bears a striking resemblance to Hawaii with its neighboring city and mountains. Its location in the Pacific waters makes it for a subtropical climate--the perfect spring-summer temperature all year-round.
The town itself focuses on the beauty and power of the ocean, which is central to all its activities. The popular tourist attraction at Izu is the Iwachi Shore where the inlet of the sea comes to a beach near the island. Its distance from Tokyo can easily be calculated and taken by train.
What To Do
Where to Stay
Getting into the Japanese experience means you have to get as traditional as possible. Occupying a ryokan for a night could be the ideal way of appreciating the serenity of the countryside. You get to enjoy a 3-4 course Japanese meal along with the exclusive experience of an onsen and in some ryokans, you may be asked to wear a kimono.
Budget: Capsule hotels. If not to simply admire the way Japan provides for short-term lodging. There are complimentary toiletries, slippers and foot baths. Also, enjoy the general area where you can chat, read manga, play video games or amuse yourself with the seasonal options at the vending machine.
What to Eat
When in Japan, there’s not enough rave for their good food. There’s plenty of savory treats to go around each prefecture so don’t worry about getting hungry. Food culture in Japan can range from the basic: Gohan (white rice), grilled fish and egg to signature favorites like sushi, ramen, fluffy pancakes and the exotic: unagi and takoyaki.
Food on a Budget
The Japanese are good at providing quality and nutritious food for each price bracket. Cheap food does not mean that you are to settle for anything less. While prices of food in Japan are generally mid-range, daily food and cooking items are bought in convenience stores (Konbini), open markets, food stalls, and grocery stores.
Grocery stores in Japan sell exclusively to food and particularly, food which is known to most Japanese. Should you want to buy more seasonal and imported goods, it takes a lot of looking for it for you to find a store that sells one. You might be also expected to pay more for it since its availability is selective. This rule applies to fruits, other selected Asian ingredients, and foreign snacks. Important rule: Japanese supermarkets prioritize food that is locally known.
Therefore exotic foods like authentic Korean bean paste or Indian curry powder would be more available in specialty/exotic food stores than in more standard Japanese ones. Prices in Japanese vary not by quality but depending on where you buy them. Grocery stores have average prices that range from
One tip on how to get good values for food is to go in the afternoons until the evenings when stores are slowly marking down from 10 to 20 percent to stretching it until 70 percent for the absolute bargain. This is a way to get the customers buying the goods within the day to start with fresh stock the next morning.
Every region in Japan has its representation in their food. We include them in the list below that may have some of your favorites and how you can get this when visiting your Japanese place of choice.
Hokkaido: the North of Japan lives near the ocean so rest assured that their seafood is an attraction. More than what is served, it is how it is served for several of Hokkaidó’s traditional dishes are made with certain methods and ingredients used particularly to the island.
- Donburi - The Uni Ikura donburi is one of Sapporo’s signature dishes that have the extra interest of sea urchin and salmon eggs alongside seafood in a bed of rice. Other toppings to choose from are shrimp, chicken, and vegetables.
- Hokki and Soup Curry - This sauce-based seafood meal is more on the sweet side with the sidings of scallops to make it extra fancy. Soup curry is the cross between ramen and a curry
Honshu: Most food known about Japan has its roots in Honshu, with each town in each prefecture having their version of creating traditional delicacies.
- Sushi/Sashimi - the most popular Japanese dish outside of the country. Different types of raw fish are combined with vinegar, vegetables, nori (seaweed) and other seafood. Sashimi is just raw seafood or fish mixed with wasabi and soy sauce.
- Tempura - seafood and vegetables that have been deep-fried and battered
- Yakitori - Grilled chicken skewers with all its imaginable parts that are mixed with other meats, vegetables, and tofu; it is a snack that accompanies alcohol
- Other known dishes made in Honshu are Takoyaki (octopus ball appetizer), Tamagoyaki (Egg omelet), Soba (Rice noodles), Tonkatsu (fried pork cutlet), Miso Soup, Onigiri (savory rice sandwich), Yakisoba (sauteed noodles with toppings) and Unagi (grilled eel). Although, other varieties are available all over Japan.
Kyushu and Ryukyu:
- Ramen - the simplest form is just wheat noodles with miso soup or soy sauce along with a variety of ingredients. The usual toppings are egg, seaweed, pork, and onions. Fukuoka is said to be the birthplace of ramen and each town has its version of the savory soup: the Hakata Ramen, Ichiran, Kumamoto and Tonkatsu Ramen are all types of Fukuoka ramen. Kyoto Ramen Town and Sapporo Ramen Alley are some of the popular places where people go to get their ramen.
Spending on Japanese Food
Convenience stores have the most affordable meals in Japan. Warm food items range from less than 100Y to 500Y ($1 to $5) each; you can have a perfectly decent meal with onigiri and canned hot coffee for 250Y. With 1000Y ($10), you can have a mid-range cafe coffee and sandwich. Food stalls in railway stations and business districts are around a medium price range as well.
There are different ways of exploring Japan as a tourist: through a plane, train, and bus. You probably know by now that the country has some of the most efficient transportation in the world. Japanese airports and stations are equally accessible--with information about your trips being simultaneously available through apps and customer service. I will go through each mode of transportation briefly.
Trains and Shinkansen (Bullet trains) - Boarding on the shinkansen or bullet train, a visiting traveler would be able to enjoy the sights and sounds of the nearby villages. The JR Pass is a reasonably charged pass that allows you to ride JR trains for a long but certain period. Lonely Planet gives you a breakdown at what passes to gain and what trains pass where.
Buses - Japan Railway is the leading authority when it comes to buses in Japan so it comes as no surprise that tourists would go for cheaper options with more amenities suited for long travel. Liam Carrigan explains the fun in choosing your bus and gives rates that are applicable in Tokyo and other cities. Nevertheless, buses keep you comfortable during the ride ahead. In my case, 5 hours passed smoothly while cruising places.
Taxis - These increase demand past midnight and onwards since most transportation (buses and trains) are off by that time. Sightseeing taxis are more expensive for tourists as they cost 10000Y ($100) for two hours. Overall rates depend on the distance covered but on average, the pay is 400-700Y for the first two kilometers. Know more about Japanese taxis here.
Planes - there are budget flights from airlines available throughout Japan. A spontaneous trip can be done from cities to provinces on cut-off prices. The basis for choosing a train depends on the length of your journey and how long it takes for you to travel back and forth. At times, you are better off taking a train or bus. See here how you can estimate what mode of transport works best for you.
While planning a trip to Japan, there are crucial things to be considered:
- Are you willing to join a group when exploring Japan?
- How much budget are you willing to allot including additional costs?
- What is the optional itinerary?
- Where will you be living?
- How long is your stay?
The most sought-after tour companies offer tours that are the most requested. We have gathered some of the highly-rated itineraries from top Japan travel websites:
- Private Tours - Sometimes, going along with the crowd gets you carried away. A mid-range budget could allow you to splurge on private tours. These tours are often at a leisurely pace with a tourist guide and transportation. One tour is composed of 4 to 12 hours of exploring the place and complimentary activities are done.
Recommended: Hokkaido and Tokyo Private Winter Tour, Nagano: Sake visits and Snow Monkeys
- City Attractions - Browse affordable travel packages that take you around the hip places of Japan’s different towns and cities. A unique opportunity to experience the best activities in different prefectures.
Itineraries in city attraction tours depend on what you are doing and how you are traveling. There are trips based on hot springs, shopping, adventures, and festivals and they can be customized based on your interest. (See Activity Grid for more)
Recommended: Shinkansen Tour of Mt. Fuji and Hakone, Food Tripping in Yokohama, Izu Peninsula: Tour of Atami
Below is the table of how much an average individual can spend on the allotted budget that they have. Cost is relative; for examples, convenient stores may sell both cheap and expensive food and toiletries. For other ways of how to spend less when in Japan, Japan Guide has their tips.
What to Bring
Documentation. As I have discussed Japanese tourist culture, complying with the rules is essential especially if you are hoping for more travel or long-term opportunities in the country. Mandatory documentation must be with you at all times. For security, have another copy of the same documents in your luggage or hand carry to spare you from the additional tax.
Documents that you have to have with you are:
- Passport with visa
- Travel Insurance
- Plane ticket reservations (these are considered as compulsory),
- WiFi card - WiFi cards/devices are a necessity because some places and accommodations do not allow for free internet. Having this assures you that you would have no problem with maps, tracking or communication.
- Itinerary list
- Train passes
- International driver’s license.
Hand carry/Luggage. When boarding a train, you would only be required to bring your hand carry (in our case) or backpack - although some trains especially the overnight ones allow for a wheelie suitcase. Be guided on the recommended luggage weight in Japan or have the option to take advantage of their luggage-forwarding service.
Disposal products such as items for cleaning and hygiene are readily available in convenience stores throughout Japan so there’s no need to bring a lot of them.
Medication. Self-explanatory, your immunity should be at the best when traveling. There are available drugstores such as Matsumoto Kiyoshi and Daikoku Drug but these are only restricted to local medicine brands since the non-Japanese brands are screened before they are put through. A Japanese equivalent of an American brand, for example, may require a different dosage and can have different ingredients so just bringing your prescription saves you the time of figuring out what you need.
What to Wear
Japan is a country with four seasons and while you do not have the wardrobe for every season, being fashion-friendly is synonymous with being practical and comfortable. I cannot stress how clothing is important--it will set the mood for traveling.
Both women and men can do a lot with long-sleeved clothing for the whole year -- the thickness depends on the temperature but more on the cold you can handle. Japan has its bouts of windy weather. Cold weather + wind sets you a freezing experience even if it’s not winter.
- It is essential to bring a light jacket, a couple of blouses that you can build in layers. A thick or fleece jacket with hood can be beneficial in rainy weather. Keep your lower extremities warm by choosing thick skirts and jeans during spring, late autumn and winter. Gloves, mittens, mufflers, and scarves are equally functional. Live Japan shows you how you can dress for Japan Travel throughout the seasons.
- You can wear tops that range from T-shirts to fleece coats. Thin T-shirts are perfect for the summer since it gets hot and humid and you wouldn’t want tops that cling to your body during this time. Keep the tops in your carry-on in case you need to change. The weather can go from cold to windy to sunny real quick so it’s more convenient to have clothing when you need it.
Wear walking shoes that are easy to slip off. Travel sites will remind you of this but more importantly, you wouldn’t want to end up wearing tight shoes that will keep you for 5 minutes at a restaurant because they’re glued to your feet. Moreover, Japanese homes require you to remove your shoes at the genkan. The same is applied to most places in Japan where traditions are still practiced.
- Sneakers and short-heel shoes can be a comfortable wear for daily walking and trekking. For winter, rain boots, snow boots with thick socks are enough to protect you. For a more comprehensive look on what to wear for each season, here is a must-see for fashionistas and travelers.
Gadget and Tools
Electronics and Travel Accessories. Traveling to a tech-savvy country is a perfect opportunity to test how your gadgets hold up. Electric outlets are 2-Pronged Type A; if your outlet has another mode, you may want to bring an adaptor. Japan has its electric requirements so knowing the required voltage helps for packing the right device. Your bag should be able to accommodate the weight of your laptop, cellphone, earphones, and cameras.
Travel Aids. Attempting to go wanderlust is fun but it’s less fun with no directions. Here are the recommended apps used while traveling to Japan:
- Google Maps
- Japan Travel Guidebook
- Train Route Finder
- Japan Navitime
- Ramen Beast
- The Japanese’s mode of exchange is almost always done in cash so make sure that you have enough of it. Most remote restaurants and shops accept only money and one should not be too confident that there will always be an ATM on standby. It is recommended that when traveling, it would be good to have half of your shopping budget converted to cash or around a minimum of 20,000 yen/higher.
- A debit card could also be useful for emergencies if you need extra pay. Machines can be located in convenient stores and signs are placed in front of the store to show that they are available. Among the notable stores: 7-11 has Seven-Bank ATMs, Family Mart has Japan Post Bank ATMs while Lawson has its ATMs.
- Respective cards and currencies are stamped on the machine or displayed on-screen before the transaction. Cities are more likely to accept international credit cards like VISA, American Express, Union Pay and MasterCard in their ATM machines while small shops and food stamps in rural areas transact with cash.
- When it comes to Ryokans, be on the safe side and calculate the estimated amount that you will spend so you can pay in cash. This saves you time from looking like you have no cash or not knowing the rules. Hotels are more flexible and can accept both cash and card but again, be mindful and still have cash on hand.
THE BEST JAPAN SOURCES
- Japan Guide - the complete go-to source on travel tips to Japan that includes attractions of each town in each prefecture. It also provides extensive information on using the transportation systems and how to adjust to life in the country.
- Matcha Japan - the website has an interactive map of Japan that has links to each town of interest. Supporting articles about the town will give you an additional knowledge about where you want to go next.
- Gaijinpot Blog - All you need to know of Japan from a foreigner’s perspective.