Japan is a small island nation yet there is plenty to do within its limited confines. Spend a couple of days or weeks in Japan and you’ll be smitten with the traditional Japanese culture, topography, and cuisine.
Some visitors to Japan love the island nation so much during their first trip that they decide to make it their permanent home after obtaining a tourist visa. However, if you are like most people, you are a bit hesitant about traveling to this small island nation.
Here’s an in-depth look at your Japan travel guide featuring the best that Japan has to offer including the best places to visit in Japan along with some helpful, responsible travel and lodging tips. From delicious sushi spots to Mount Fuji, hiking trails, and more, there is plenty to do in Japan.
Heed the advice below and you’ll get the most out of your exposure to traditional Japanese culture during your first trip to this wonderful place.
Best Things to Do in Japan
Tokyo is the capital of Japan and one of the most iconic cities in the world. It is known for its bustling streets, vibrant culture, and cutting-edge technology. Tokyo is home to over 9 million people and is divided into 23 wards. Each ward has its own distinct character, from the bustling business district of Shinjuku to the traditional temples of Asakusa. Tokyo is a city of contrasts, where ancient shrines sit alongside gleaming skyscrapers. It is a city of dreams, where you can find something for everyone. From Michelin-starred restaurants to karaoke bars, Tokyo has something for everyone. It is no wonder that Tokyo continues to be a popular destination for tourists from around the world.
Mount Fuji is one of Japan’s most iconic landmarks and a popular tourist destination. Located on the island of Honshu, it is the highest mountain in Japan and has been a source of inspiration for centuries. The mountain is an active volcano, but it hasn’t erupted since 1707. It is also home to many shrines and temples, including the famous Chureito Pagoda. Climbing Mount Fuji is a popular activity, and many visitors come to view the sunrise from the peak. The mountain is also a popular spot for skiing and snowboarding in the winter months. Mount Fuji is truly a sight to behold, and a visit to this majestic mountain is sure to be an unforgettable experience.
Relax in an Onsen
Crack open a couple of books detailing Japan’s history and you’ll find mentions of ancient temples, samurais, Nintendo, a sumo wrestling match, and even the country’s famous onsen hot springs. Onsens have been around for 3,000 years for good reason.
Rest in an onsen when you visit Japan, let the warmth flow through you and you’ll agree this hot bath is as soothing as it gets. Onset hot springs convert volcanic energy to just the right temperature for both mental and physical relaxation.
You can find onsens across nearly the entirety of Japan. Outdoor onsens in Zen gardens that provide unparalleled peace of mind after a day of walking, bus-riding, and train-catching. Onsens are also accessible in bathhouses available to the public including tourists enjoying a dream trip to Japan.
Opt for an outdoor onsen and you’ll relish the juxtaposition of the hot water with the fresh natural scents of nearby pine trees. Resort towns such as Beppu and Kusatsu are two of the most popular destinations for onsen-lovers. Save your onsen experience for the evening after a long day of travel, soak in the warmth and you’ll feel an invaluable sense of relief.
We would be remiss to gloss over the fact that it is necessary to thoroughly bathe at separate bathing facilities prior to entering a public onsen. Wash off so you are completely clean and you’ll be welcomed into the onsen of your choice.
Open up a Japan travel guide and you’ll find at least a paragraph or two about the importance of understanding the local customs of traditional Japanese culture. many onsens are used by Japanese people in their birthday suits, meaning you’ll be surrounded by naked travelers and natives while enjoying your time at many onsens.
However, there is the option of covering up for those who prefer modesty. Certain onsen public bathhouses provide modesty towels that will keep you comfortable if you prefer not to be seen in your birthday suit for the few hours you spend in the water.
Visit a Robot Restaurant
Pick up a Japan travel guide and you are likely to find mention of robot restaurants. Japan’s robots, unique vending machines, hello kitty games, and other idiosyncratic tech innovations are regularly featured in Western mainstream news media in reverence for their ingenuity.
In particular, the Robot Restaurant in the Shinjuku Kabukicho space, often referred to as Japan’s red-light district is especially popular. Featuring tasty Japanese food, bars with dim lighting, and plenty of sex appeal, this part of Japan holds particular appeal for adult visitors.
The Robot Restaurant is a combination of:
- Flashy illumination
- Catch music
Watch the robots move to the music while you savor a meal and you’ll enjoy a 90-minute show. The tasty eats and cool treats are brought directly to your table. Just be sure to make a reservation prior to the start of a robot performance to guarantee you have a seat for this entertainment extravaganza.
It is also worth noting Japan’s robot restaurants typically have a dress code that bars the donning of sunglasses and costumes such as wigs, cosplay outfits, etc. Some such restaurants also bar customers from taking professional photographs, meaning you’ll have to leave that fancy camera in your hotel room. However, you are perfectly free to take snapshots with your smartphone.
Hike the Kumano Kodo Trail
Japan is a crowded island nation simply because it is small in size and rife with fun things to do. You can get away from the crowds by hiking walking trails such as the Kumano Kodo Trail. This picturesque outdoor getaway exposes you to nature’s beauty, fresh air and animals for arguably unparalleled animal tourism.
Segue to the walking trails after a couple days in Japan’s urban centers and you’ll relish the much-needed reprieve from the fast-pace of the major cities. Though few know it, the Kumano Kodo Trail is the sister trail of none other than the famous Camino de Santiago trail in Spain.
The Kumano Kodo trail takes you through small villages and mountains, providing access to a traditional Japanese inn in the form of tranquil guesthouses set amidst nature’s splendor. Read through the tourist reviews of the Kumano Kodo trail and you’ll find the vast majority heap on the praise for the solitude of the experience.
Most hikers who take to the Kumano Kodo find less than 20 people walking the trail throughout the experience. In other words, those seeking refuge away from the masses within a natural setting will absolutely love hiking the Kumano Kodo.
Visit Japan for the Kumano Kodo trail and you’ll spot at least a couple of locals during the hike, most of whom are cordial and willing to engage in conversation about the trail and surrounding spaces. Spark up a conversation and you’ll learn all about Japan’s stunning countryside and wild animals.
All in all, the Kumano Kodo hiking trail is likely to take a couple of days to complete. However, if you stretch out your hike by staying at guesthouses, it will likely take a week to complete the trail.
If you aren’t an avid hiker or skittish about spending several days on a hiking trail, don’t fret. GetYourGuide has several tours that will set you up with a local who will make it easy to plan out an enjoyable hiking itinerary while visiting Japan. Such an itinerary is especially important for solo female travelers concerned about their safety and well-being when taking in the natural beauty of Japan’s rural areas.
Visiting Japan is that much more rewarding when you sample the top local fare. Japan is chock-full of izakayas, meaning small bars with tasty food and refreshing beverages.
Chow down from a small plate at an izakaya and you’ll likely be surrounded by a dozen people or less. This intimate atmosphere makes it easy to engage in conversation, learn about the locals and enjoy your meal without considerable noise pollution.
Visit Japan, hop from one izakaya to another, tasting a plethora of dishes and unique local beverages, mingle with the native Japanese and you’ll learn a lot while having a great time. Though nearly the entirety of Japan has izakayas, Osaka is especially famous for its elite izakayas. Shinesaki and the streets near Dotonbori are ground zero for izakaya hopping.
Every tourist in Japan should understand that izakayas require that visitors pay a cover fee that differs by site. In general, you can expect to pay around 300 yen for admission to an izakaya. This charge covers the cost of a seat in the izakaya along with a diminutive dish.
If you don’t want to venture out to izakayas by your lonesome, search the web for izakaya tours and you’ll find no shortage of opportunities to enjoy the izakaya experience with other tourists and locals. A word to the wise: ask a local to help you order from izakaya menus as most are written in Japanese as opposed to English and you’ll make the most of your trip to Japan.
Take a Japanese Cooking Class
Chances are you’ve seen Japan’s famous conveyor belt sushi restaurants online or in a Japan travel guide. Have you ever thought about rolling your own sushi? Maybe you’ve got a passion for ramen.
Take a brief Japanese cooking class during your stay in this island nation and you’ll learn how to make the local fare in surprisingly little time. Japan Japanese cuisine tutorials provided by local chefs provide an informative look at the secrets behind the tasty local delights.
Take one or two cooking classes during your stay and you’ll develop a deeper appreciation for the country’s food as well as its culture. As an example, Japanese chefs are eager to teach visitors about the nuances of making ramen from scratch and rolling sushi.
Those who are fans of sushi are advised to gravitate toward the Tsukiji Fish Market & Making featuring some of Tokyo’s top local chefs who provide sushi-making instruction. Kyoto’s cooking classes are revered for instructing locals how to create visually striking sushi rolls that look just as good as they taste.
Visit Japan, venture out to Osaka for cooking classes and you’ll find several local chefs willing to teach you how to make several types of ramen from scratch. You can also learn how to cook Okonomiyaki, meaning Japanese pizza, along with a couple of side dishes while in Tokyo, the capital city of Japan.
Visit the Nintendo Store
A trip to Japan is not complete until you visit the country’s famous Nintendo Store, formally known as Nintendo Tokyo. Though scaling Mount Fuji and taking advantage of the country’s ubiquitous free wifi is tempting, you owe it to yourself to break away for at least an hour or two to experience Japan’s video game heaven.
The Nintendo Store is perfectly positioned in Tokyo right by the PARCO department store headquarters featuring nearly two dozen shops, event spaces, and eateries. Complete with anime-themed stores and even a Capcom Store, this gamer’s paradise has a little bit of everything for players of all ages.
In fact, the store has dedicated spaces for each of its hit games ranging from Splatoon to Zelda, Mario, and so many more options. Be sure to check out the Animal Crossing selection featuring the popular game’s themed watches, cookware, summer items, stationary and so much more.
Pick up a Japanese sim card, Zelda Breath of the Wild, Mario Odyssey and Pokemon Snap, buy some Nintendo memorabilia and you’ll feel like a kid again. This is just what you need after a stressful day of train-hopping and taxicab-catching.
Bring your own food to snack on as you explore Nintendo world, check out the game-makers latest offerings, and pick up a Nintendo-themed postcard to write home about your enjoyable trip.
Check out the Plum and Cherry Blossoms
Crack open a travel guide to Japan and you’ll find mention of its famous cherry blossoms. Though you can find cherry blossoms in other parts of the world such as Washington D.C., they simply do not compare to the beauty of those in this small island nation.
Cherry and plum blossoms bloom in gorgeous white and pink hues at winter’s end, signaling the start of spring that brings hope and happiness. In particular, the Mito gardens have some of the nation’s most visually appealing plum and cherry blossoms.
The Kairaku-en garden, perhaps the nation’s most revered landscape style gardens, is one of the best places to visit in Japan. Created way back in the early 1800s, the garden still stands as beautiful as ever.
The garden was created at the instruction of a local domain lord of Mito han, widely revered as a respected Tokugawa shogun clan member. The translation of kairaku-en is “garden enjoyed by people” as it was one of the initial gardens to open to the general public including tourists.
Take a stroll through the 32 acres of gardens and you’ll find several thousand plum and cherry blossom trees. More than 100 unique varieties of these stunning trees are in bloom from February’s end through the start of March, a period referred to as Cherry blossom season. Time your trip for this part of the year and you’ll have the opportunity to attend a plum and cherry blossom festival with local revelers and tourists alike.
Extend your Japan trip to the start of May and you’ll be in town for Golden Week. Golden week is a string of four national holidays that occur within a week at the start of spring.
Take a look at Japan money saving tips and you’ll find reserving lodging during this time of the year is costly. Those on a mid range budget or tight budget are advised to plan accordingly.
Sample Japan’s Famous Sushi at a Fish Market
Sushi is one of Japan’s undeniable strengths. Even if you aren’t a seafood-lover, you’ll likely find at least one type of sushi that suits your fancy while visiting this small island nation.
Make your way through the many fish markets and you’ll find a litany of sushi breakfast options, lunch choices, dinner selections, tuna auctions, vegan sushi rolls, traditional sushi and so much more. In fact, there are even specialized phone apps that help you navigate through Japan’s plethora of sushi offerings.
Check out the Nara Deer
Japan has more wildlife than most think. In particular, the country’s Nara Deer are especially popular. The ancient city of Nara is home to these beautiful animals.
Visit Kyoto, take the train to Nara, and snap some pictures of the Nara deer for posterity’s sake. According to local lore, Nara deer are messengers sent directly from the gods to the people of Japan.
Keep talk to a minimum, observe these peaceful animals roam, bring your own food from a family mart or convenience store, and trade it for a gracious deer bow. Your eyes are not deceiving you! The Nara deer really will bow if you offer them a treat.
You can also pick up some deer crackers from nearby stands if you don’t have food on your person while visiting Japan’s famous Nara deer.
Where to stay in Japan
Japan boasts its fair share of hotels, many of which are rated at 4 or 5 stars. Most hotels have staff that speaks fluent English so don’t worry about scheduling a trip to Japan for fear of a language barrier.
The island nation’s accommodations are welcoming, comfortable and memorable, especially if you show appreciation for the locals by learning at least a couple of Japanese words and phrases. Without further ado, let’s take a look at 10 of the best accommodations for those who visit Japan.
- Super Hotel Kyoto Shijokawaramachi
- Hakone Lake Hotel
- Ueno First City Hotel
- The Shibafu Guesthouse
- Hotel Kikunoya
- Hotel Potmum Sapporo
- Bself Fuji Onsen Villa
- Yoshimatsu Hotel
- Prince Park
- Hiyori Hotel Osaka Namba Station
How to Get Around in Japan
Most major cities on the island are busy yet it is still possible to get around with ease, especially if you print out this handy travel guide to Japan for reference during your stay. Whether you are a pedestrian, a driver, or prefer public transportation, you’ll have plenty of options for getting from point A to point B and beyond. In particular, Japan’s rental car services are popular and affordable. As long as you are over the age of 18 and have an international driver’s license, you are eligible to rent a car during your stay in Japan. The average rental car in Japan typically costs about 10,000 yen each day. This amount of yen converts to about $75 USD. Plenty of rental car pickup points are available near airports and throughout Japan’s cities.The Japan Rail Group offers a convenient Eki Rent-a-car system available at the majority of the stations throughout the nation. If you don’t know how to drive or simply do not want to drive while in Japan, take advantage of the Shinkansen bullet train travel option that makes it easy to explore the island in its entirety during your trip to Japan. The Japan Rail Pass is also an option. Japan’s train station system connects visitors directly from the airport to downtown Tokyo and additional destinations in Kyushu, Shikoku, Honshu, and Hokkaido.
Travel Tips Japan
If you are like most international travelers interested in an expedition to Japan, you’ve likely heard a little bit of good and also some negativity about this island nation. Print out this ultimate Japan travel guide and you’ll find your stay on the island goes that much smoother.Though the natives are sometimes stereotyped as insulated and somewhat ethnocentric as they have a strong national identity, most Japanese are happy to welcome tourists. Smile, learn some Japanese words, be friendly with the locals, and abide by local customs and you’ll find traveling throughout Japan is a rewarding experience. Here’s a quick look at a couple of travel tips for Japan that will help you navigate the island with efficiency and safety.
Get Travel Insurance Before Embarking on Your Journey
It is in your interest to purchase travel insurance prior to visiting Japan, we recommend finding the best possible policy by using TravelInsurance.com and if you are a backpacker or digital nomad use SafetyWing for affordable coverage. The travel insurance policy you select should include a policy applicable to:
- Medical care
- Hotel cancellation
- Lost luggage
- Damage to belongings
- Flight cancellations
If you don’t have insurance, there is no such thing as free cancellation, meaning saving money in the event of the unforeseen requires this essential form of protection.
Though theft and vandalism are rare in Japan, it is better to plan for the worst by securing travel insurance and hoping for the best. Though insurance does not cover the cost of international transaction fees, it will safeguard the bulk of the financial investment you make in your Japan trip.
Travel insurance also provides medical care in the event that you are injured or become ill while in the island nation. Traveling throughout Japan is relatively safe yet there is always the chance of an accident or contracting a virus or other germs that cause illness. Obtain insurance and you’ll be able to present proof of insurance to those at the hospital or clinic where care is provided, ensuring you’ll be treated by local doctors, nurses, and other professionals.
Most Japan tourists are interested in outdoor activities such as skiing, scuba diving, hiking, mountain climbing, etc. If you plan any such outdoor expeditions during your trip to Japan, ensure your insurance includes coverage for accidents that occur when engaging in such risky activities.
Finally, make sure the insurance policy includes evacuation coverage so that you are provided with safe evacuation to your home country. Don’t forget to obtain proof of insurance. The plan you obtain should include hardcopy proof so you can present a physical document that shows you are fully insured.
Take Full Advantage of Japan’s Rail Pass
The Japan Rail Pass is the most affordable and efficient means of seeing everything Japan has to offer. Obtain the rail pass and you won’t have to fuss over purchasing individual rail tickets.
You can reserve a seat on any Japanese Rail train at no cost during your Japan trip. The retail pass sets the stage for you to engage in unlimited travel across the entirety of the rail train lines but for the Nozomi Super Express.
A combination of rail passes is available based on the length of time spent in the island nation and the destinations for visitation. As an example, there are single-week standard passes for extended journeys.
Regional passes for specific areas of the island such as Kyushu are also available. However, if you want to see the majority of the island nation, it is in your interest to obtain the standard pass for travel extending from one to three weeks. Standard passes for both first-class green cars and coach-class cars are available.
Order your standard pass or JR Pass from home before embarking on your journey throughout Japan and you’ll be provided with a voucher, sometimes referred to as an Exchange Order, after the standard or JR pass is purchased. The voucher will be exchanged for the actual pass after you arrive in the island nation.
There is a three-month window to use the Exchange Order for the pass after purchase. Exchange the voucher for the pass at one of the 40+ Japan Rail Pass train stations after arrival and you’ll segue into adventure mode without delay.
Foreign visitors qualify for a specialized regional pass in addition to the regular Japan Rail Pass as detailed above. Such regular coach class rail passes are optimal for traveling throughout both western and eastern Hokkaido, Kyushu, and Honshu. You can obtain such a regional pass for visitors prior to your trip to Japan from the vendors that provide standard rail passes. However, you’ll have to provide your passport for review to prove you qualify for temporary visitor status in Japan.
Those who do not qualify for the Japan Rail Pass also have the option of using a 5-day pass for rail travel on the Seishun 18. This travel option is optimal for adventures that reveal the best of Japan’s incredible country beauty.
Regional tickets are also available for those who visit to sightsee. As an example, the Hakone Free Pass provided through Odakyu rail provides transportation through Hakone and other big cities.
Traveling Across Japan? Consider a Bus
Japan has a convenient bus system that runs on schedule with few exceptions. Check out Japan travel guides and you’ll find riding the bus is ranked high on the money-saving tips list. Those on a mid-range budget will be happy to learn buses are not as comfortable as rental cars, taxis, and some trains yet they are efficient and affordable.
Check out the bus routes in the land of the rising sun for yourself and you’ll find they are used quite extensively throughout the vast majority of the island nation. Though a bus won’t take you to the top of Mount Fuji, it will transport you nearly everywhere else during your trip to Japan. The best part is getting a seat on a bus costs significantly less than a taxi, rental car, or even a train, helping you save money as you visit cat cafes, ancient temples, and more throughout this fascinating country.
Add in the fact that Japan’s buses reach parts of the country including many temples that are not served by the rail system and there is even more reason to hop on a bus to check out everything Japan has to offer. Some Japanese buses extend all the way to remote parts of the country, even including an ancient pilgrimage route far away from where taxicabs and train lines venture.
In particular, the country’s long-distance bus lines between its major cities including Kyoto and Tokyo are especially popular. Though most Japanese buses are fairly plain in terms of comfort, amenities, and internal aesthetics, some are surprisingly luxurious, featuring seats that recline, and salons.
The most luxurious buses tend to be those used for overnight expeditions throughout the island nation. However, if you plan on taking a long-distance bus during your trip to Japan, you will likely need to purchase your seat well in advance.
Reserving an overnight bus far in advance is especially important for overnight trips. Make your reservations to travel to Japan as soon as possible, especially if you plan on traveling during the busy times of travel season or taking popular routes and you’ll rest easy knowing a seat will be saved for you when exploring Japan.
Domestic Ferries are Also an Option
Japan’s domestic ferries provide efficient access to the nearby islands. Some such islands such as the Naoshima within the island-laden Seto Inland Sea are only reachable through ferries. Though some flights reach Japan’s islands, they are often inferior to ferries in terms of cost and luxury.
Give a ferry ride a chance and you’ll agree it is surprisingly relaxing. In particular, overnight ferry rides between Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu from north to south, respectively are revered by locals and tourists alike. Ferries also provide fairly quick and efficient transportation to nearby islands of the Inland Sea.
It must be noted that Japan’s ferry schedules listed on the internet and in other sources are not set in stone. The country’s ferry schedules are subject to changes, especially by season.
Furthermore, if there is harsh weather or inclement weather is on the horizon, ferry schedules also have the potential to change. Be sure to check with the local tourist office for information about the ticket prices and schedules of ferry rides for the latest accurate details.
Japan’s long-distance ferries have tickets available in three distinct classes: first class, second class, and special class. The most affordable option is a second-class ticket without a bed. This option provides ferry-goers with a common space along with a tatami mat for comfort.
There is also the option of a second-class ticket that includes a bed. First-class tickets typically cost two times as much as second-class tickets. The special class ferry ticket is generally two to three times the cost of a second class ticket.
You have the option of bringing your automobile onto a ferry though the car’s size ultimately shapes the cost of transporting it by boat. Bicyclists are also allowed to bring their bikes onto the majority of Japanese ferries.
In general, ferries charge about 100 Japanese yen per travel hour during which a bike is on board. As an example, consider a future trip in Japan in which you take a 6-hour ferry ride with a bike on board. The cost to transport that bike by way of water will be 600 Japanese yen, equating to about $5 USD.
Use Japan’s Bullet Train
Japan is famous for a lot of things including its highly efficient bullet train. Formally known as the Shinkansen, meaning new main line, the bullet train has a space shuttle-style nose for impeccable aerodynamics. This uniquely shaped train nose segues into the train travel station similar to a spaceship entering a space station.
Hop on the futuristic bullet trains and you’ll zip across the land, making your way to tourist-friendly destinations in comfort and style for ultimate Japan travel. The train travel network connects island major cities with the mainland, making it easy to take in the highlights of the entire country in surprisingly little time.
The best part is the bullet train for Japan travel is incredibly quiet while traveling at nearly 200 miles per hour. The comfy and clean seats highlighted by retro stylistic elements provide a bit of a blast from the past while you traverse Japan in seemingly futuristic bullet trains.
Japan’s bullet train consists of an expansive network of high-speed rail lines that connect Tokyo with regional highlights. Owned by the Japan Railway Construction, Transport, and Tech group, the bullet train is operated by nearly half a dozen companies that comprise the Japan Railways Group.
All in all, the bullet train has transported 10 billion passengers, including billions of tourists, across its half-century of existence. The train travels between 150 and 200 miles per hour yet it has not caused a single passenger injury in this period of time.