tops many people’s travel list, but all too often, travelers are daunted by the thought of planning a trip there. A few factors contribute to this hesitation: a long-standing belief that it is an expensive or cost-prohibitive country, the difficulty of visiting a place where English is not widely spoken, and the idea that it is a seasonal destination, where any trip should be planned around sakura, cherry blossom season.
A friend described her solo trip last year as an “infantilizing experience,” where she felt completely marooned and helpless without the guidance and translation skills of a local. But with advance planning and some savvy, Japan can be a more accessible and less alien destination, and one that can be richly rewarding in its foreignness. In whatever season you go, Japan is such a singular and spectacular destination that it will win over any traveler with its culture, cuisine and people. Here are ten Japan travel tips to know before planning your trip there:
In one day in Tokyo, I witnessed sumo wrestlers training in their sumo stable (a rare event that needs advance planning and insider connections); I had the best sushi of my life at Tsukiji market; I attended an origami demonstration by the country’s top origami artist; I saw ASIMO, a robot, run and perform human tasks at the Honda Center; and I went to a nightclub in Shibuya where a famous DJ from Berlin was spinning. The breadth of experiences, from traditional to modern, is extraordinary, and there is something for everyone.
With the variety of experiences on offer, it’s essential to plan a mix of activities. Kyoto alone has 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites, but you will probably not have the time or energy to visit all of them. Indagare's travel tip is to schedule a mix of sightseeing and interactive experiences like a sushi class or a kimono-fitting with some leisure activities such as shopping. It’s also important to factor in down time, especially in cities like Tokyo and Kyoto where the hotels are phenomenal.
Most travelers visit Japan either during sakura, cherry blossom season (mid-March to mid-April) or in the autumn, when temperatures are moderate and the scenery is particularly photogenic. Cherry blossoms and fall foliage are beautiful, no doubt, and they do transform the landscape, but they also mean crowded sites and difficulty getting restaurant reservations. Summer is hot and humid (average high of 90 F), which can be uncomfortable for city touring.
Winter, however, is relatively mild (average high of 50 and low of 40) with lots of sunshine and bright blue, clear skies. Even without colorful foliage, Japan is still verdant with its abundance of evergreens. It’s also the best time to view Mt. Fuji, which tends to be shrouded in clouds through much of the year. When I visited Japan in early January, I saw many sights without crowds and was able to take photos of iconic places with no people in them. I was also able to get last-minute dinner reservations at popular restaurants with only six or eight seats—impossible to do during peak season.
So long as you like Japanese food, chances are you will not have a bad meal. Japanese culture is renowned for specialization, and most restaurants only do one or a handful of dishes, and they do them well. Restaurants are very specific in what they make, so if you are in the mood for sushi, you go to a sushi restaurant; if you want ramen, you go to a ramen joint, etc. Anyone outside of Japan is used to going to a “Japanese restaurant” and ordering a variety of dishes, from tempura to sashimi to donburi (rice dishes with meat), but in Japan, these catch-all places are rare and probably not that great.
I had a comical experience at a yakitori (meat on a stick) restaurant, where I kept trying to order beef and pork and shrimp, all of which were strangely unavailable. The chef responded to my every request by lifting up a chicken skewer and declaring “toriniku!.” After a few failed attempts at ordering, I realized that in fact only chicken—from beak to tail—was on the menu.
Besides the dollar being stronger than the yen, taxes are usually included in most goods. This means that when you dine at a restaurant or purchase an item from a store, the listed price already includes the sales tax. Unless you’re dining at a Michelin-starred restaurant for every meal, food is generally in line with what you’d pay for in New York. With no sales tax and a no tipping culture, the savings can be significant. Guides, hotels and services like hiring a car and driver, however, are expensive.
As with taxes, gratuity is either included in service prices or just not expected. While this may seem uncomfortable for Western travelers used to expressing gratitude through tips, it is really just not part of the culture. One guidebook I read said, “It will just confuse them.” That said, tips are welcome by guides when you find their service exceptional, but don’t feel it is an obligation.
English is still not widely spoken, but it’s increasingly more common, especially in tourist spots. Locals I spoke to say that this is a new development in recent years, where even taxi drivers and restaurants in off-the-beaten path areas are able to communicate with English speakers using a few rudimentary phrases. More and more Japanese restaurants carry an English language menu, and train stations have signs in English. Japanese schools teach English as a required language, so when in a bind, find a young local to help you translate.
Travel Tip: Prepare for your trip by downloading Japanese translation apps on your phone. There are helpful guides for tourists, including common words and phrases for eating out, shopping and asking for directions. Some free apps I found helpful were Japanese by Cool Gorilla, Japanese by Codegent and Dictionary by BravoLOL.
It also goes a long way to learn a few key words and phrases, even if it’s just konnichiwa (hello/ good day), sumimasen (multiple uses: excuse me, sorry, thank you) and arigato (thank you).
We will always recommend a car, driver and guide to make things as easy as possible, but if you are more independent or are just up for an adventure, don’t fret about the thought of taking public transportation in Japan. Tokyo and Kyoto have extensive rail networks (subways connecting bullet trains connecting cable cars), and they are cheap. Taxis, on the other hand, tend to be expensive.
Do note that in Tokyo, the trains shut down at midnight. It’s a strange phenomenon in a mega-city with tons of late-night bars, restaurants, karaoke joints, pachinko parlors and even 24-hour clubs. Getting around in the early hours means either an expensive cab ride back to your hotel or staying out until 5 a.m., when the trains start up again.
In general, it is faster, easier and more comfortable to travel around the country by train than by plane. Japan’s train system is a highly efficient and impressive marvel, and one you should be taking advantage of, especially since it takes you from city center to city center. A bullet train ticket from Kyoto to Tokyo can cost less than a private car transfer from Narita airport. Plus, the train stations in major hubs have tons of restaurants and shops to keep you entertained before your train arrives (right on time, always – don’t forget!).
Travel Tips: Pack light. There is overhead space for bags, but for suitcases, there is limited storage space only on the front and back of each train car. Book your tickets in advance, especially on busy travel periods including weekends, and reserve seats either on the front or back to be close to your luggage. If you are traveling as a group or family, or if you have more than one suitcase each, it’s best to have your luggage delivered door-to-door. Indagare can assist in hiring this efficient and affordable service.
Japan is a place where insider access makes the difference between a great trip and a once-in-a-lifetime trip. With the right connections, a lot of closed doors can be opened, especially in Japanese culture where personal introductions are key.
Indagare has great local contacts who can arrange sumo stable visits, reservations at hard-to-book restaurants, private temple dinners, and meetings with famous artists. Contact the Bookings Team to arrange.
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