How to prepare for your Japan Trip

How to prepare for your Japan Trip

Japan is very en vogue right now. As a regular visitor to travellers forums, I notice most people visit Japan on their own now, but the people in my peer group (middle aged professionals), most would have visited with a group tour. But knowing how to prepare for your Japan Trip will help you to visit Japan independently, probably cheaper, more leisurely and on a much more flexible schedule.

Can you easily travel in Japan on your own?

I am still surprised how many people visit on group tours, saying the culture is too strange to get by on your own. Well, while group tours definitely have their advantages, like everything will be planned for you, regular meals, transport, competent guiding etc., I think the disadvantages by far outweigh the advantage.

how to prepare for your Japan Trip
You find scenes like this Nagasaki Teramachi temple pretty much anywhere

My mum who is over 70, is starting to get Japan fever as well, and I had to promise her that we visit “the big sights” next year. She is reading a Japan guidebook by now and has proclaimed that she wants to visit Kyoto “and anything interesting” that is around it. She is your typical group tour punter, but chose me as her personal tour guide because I am rather an over-researcher and after five trips to Japan, I have become not quite an “old Japan hand” but a fairly seasoned tourist. But even on your own, visiting Japan independently is easy and has a lot of advantages. Just just need to know how to prepare for your Japan Trip.

Ninen-zaka in Kyoto – rammed by day, peaceful at 6am in the rain

For example, in a group, you will invariably be staying at a rather large hotel and be stuck to six meal times. Your coach will leave in the late morning, when attractions tend to get very full – because that’s when all groups arrive. You have little flexibility in your itinerary. Dropping off to visit a cafe or restaurant you have heard about? Stopping at a shop? Difficult.

No group trip will take you to Sasayama

And to me, Japan, especially along the Tokaido-Sanyo “Golden Route” may be about all the sights, but also going off-route and just experiencing the everyday beauty of little shrines, off the beaten path attractions, random cafes and sometimes just cycling around and taking in the scenery. Impossible ona group tour unless it’s a very small one.

Take your time in a Japanese cafe (here at Breath and Roy, Sasayama)

So, here comes my encouragement to visit independently. Support smaller independent businesses and make your own itinerary, eat in random little places, shop until you drop, leave lots of money in the country, but still save compared to a group trip.

How to prepare for your Japan Trip: take home message first

Japan is a wonderful travel destination for independent travel. No one will try to rip you off, it is super clean, reasonably priced, and, as a high population density country, everything runs like clock work. Don’t get me get started on the wealth of cultural experiences. People are lovely despite the language barrier.

The most important thing to know is to be a considerate guest, respect, watch and learn.

There is very little you actually need to prepare in advance, but a few things that will be helpful.

Getting to Japan

I am keeping this short, because if you know how to search for flights from your home airport, then booking flights to Japan should prove no issue. I tend to book with the airline directly as I don’t fancy dealing with unresponsive third party. Airlines I have used so far include British Airways, Japan Airlines ), China Airlines, and Finnair. My next flight will be with Etihad via the Gulf – a significant detour, but I like their website, prices, safety record and relative flexibility even on Economy fares.

Finnair Marimekko-themed aircraft from my recent trip

My favourite so far has been Japan Airlines by a mile. All four flights were full, but they managed to make the experience comfortable, the service in Economy was outstanding, the cabin squeaky clean. They are more difficult for me now, as flights from Germany are often codeshare by Finnair (also fine) or Iberia.

Observe Japanese Customs

There are no hard rules for travelling in Japan, but with visitors to Japan reaching record numbers this year, the country isn’t exactly undervisited, and yes, in some of the popular places can get very crowded.

Japan is culturally quite different so, here are a few general pointers.

First, always carry your passport, This is actually a legal requirement and I have heard stories of people being accompanied to their hotels by police for ID.

Posing with the bad fortunes left behind at a shrine – mild fauxpas, no one cared

A few things that make your life easy is to carry some cash and a small towel and maybe a water bottle. Cash for the drinks vending. Small towels for wiping your brow and drying your hands, as hand driers in public toilets often don’t exist (toilet paper is almost always there).

It is a bit frowned upon to walk and eat at the same time. Or eating on public transport. All food outlets usually have a small area to eat, and bins to dispose of rubbish. The convenience stores almost always have a small indoor or outdoor seating area, too. Another thing I heard lots of people comment is the absence of rubbish bins. This is partly due to the 1995 Tokyo subway attack. While I never had more than maybe an empty soda bottle to carry around, it makes sense to take an empty bag to take your litter home.

Other than that – yes, there are plenty etiquette rules, but firstly, you can easily pick them up by watching what locals do, and they will probably forgive you as a foreigner not knowing the rules. In general, the Japanese are a lot more quiet in public and mind their business, so as a matter of courtesy, keep your conversation low and turn mobiles on silent.

Jizo statues can be found anywhere – littel protection statues along the way

Last one, although it is probably more a pet peeve. A lot of things associated with funeral rites are simply not done and will get you amused looks – sticking chopsticks into food, passing food on chopsticks, crossing chopsticks, wearing kimono and yukata right side over left… all these can be done right when observing the Japanese. And that’ll be enough rules for now, for the Japanese are actually super tolerant of tourists making a bit of a tit of themselves.

Getting around in Japan

For major cities, the railway network and flight network is excellent. The bullet train/Shinkansen now runs from Hokkaido to Kagoshima all through Japan on its Eastern coast, with several lines to the West. It is, however, pricey, so if you are travelling locally, there is absolutely no need to use Shinkansen.

Vintage Shinkansen 100 series at Shin-Osaka – they are no longer in use now

Highway buses are sometimes a good alternative. They are a lot cheaper than trains but need to be booked in advance. Willer is a national company with lots of long distance buses, but if you are looking for a particular area, just search for “highway bus” and the name of your destination.

All key train information is bilingual, usually local trains and trams have bilingual signs, buses can be trickier with Japanese signage only.

Despite being busy, Japanese train station have clear signage (and helpful staff)

For local transport you can get a regional pass, often saving you lots of money if you move around a lot. The Japan Railpass used to be very popular covering all of Japan, but since its price increase it is only really worth it for multiple long Shinkansen trips. Regional rail passes of Japan Rail (JR) and private railway companies may be a good deal – again, a search of the region and “pass” will usually yield accurate results. I have travelled to Kansai recently, so the appropriate site for Kansai region passes is on the JR West web site.

Nankai private railway car en route to Koyasan

Last not least, try to get an IC card. If you travel to Japan just once, get one of the tourist cards usually called “Welcome” then the name of the card, like Pasmo or Suica. For more than one trip, get a proper card – whatever is the regional card, here is a good overview. You pay 500JPY for the card and charge it, and the balance keeps for years and the card doesn’t expire. For example, I have a Sugoca, issued by JR in Nagasaki, and have travelled all over Kansai with it, including rural areas and city buses. If you have iphone, there are virtual IC cards, too.

Staying Connected

With smartphones pretty ubiquitous, you can log into free WiFi in most urban areas. The app “Japan WiFi Auto Connect” will find the accessible WiFi automatically for you.

All international airports have also stalls or vending machines selling data-only SIM, starting at about 20 Euro. I have not bought one in Japan yet because the free WiFi was so good and I don’t navigate on my phone, but they are known to work reliably.

If you don’t mind carrying an extra device and have more than one phone user in your party, you can also rent pocket WiFi.

However, most foreign SIM cards still work well in Japan, except it costs a bomb to make phone calls. So some kind of internet connectivity, be it by SIM or WiFi, makes total sense.

There are also a few applications that will be useful in Japan. These are my personal recommendation, not a detailed comparison. I always mark things I want to see and ways to get there on public transport on Google Maps, then make the maps available offline. I use Google Translate the same way – this works even when I translate menus using Google Lens.

In terms of other apps, I like to have some disaster warning apps (earthquakes etc.) and chose “Safety Tips for Travelers” because it’s multilingual and has much more – weather, free support, medical institutions. I also have Japan Travel by Navitime (but mainly use Google Maps) and Go Taxi App.

Accommodation

Japan has plenty of lovely accommodation, from luxury international and national chain hotels to really lovely family-run inns.

At the top end of the scale, the fancy hotels like Aman, Hoshinoya, independently run ryokan are out of my price range, so I can’t say much about them. Next level, there are lots of reasonably priced smaller hotels that offer superb style on a moderate budget. Too numerous to list here, I have some in my Kyoto Cycling Guide.

A modern ryokan room at moderate price point (Origami Inn, Nagasaki)

The accommodations I stay in the most are smaller local-run guest houses. Some are called guest house, some ryokan, some minshuku, some simply “inn”, Nagomiyado (“relaxing inn”)… I have some recommendations in my recent Kansai post.

Last not least, business hotels. They can be a bit bland, rooms minuscule, but they are great in price, comfort and service – and often located near train stations. My favourite chain so far is S-Peria – modern, stylish, decent sized rooms. I have booked into a Hokke Club for my next trip. Some, like Dormy Inn, often have on-site onsen baths.

A temple lodging in Koyasan

I haven’t tried the infamous capsule hotels, but I have actually booked into a “cabin” hotel for my next trip – meaning, you can stand up in your cubby and take a small piece of luggage with you. First Cabin are perhaps the most well regarded of this kind of accommodation.

Small inn Oito in Sasyama

I use Booking.com for all my accommodation unless I make a direct reservation with the hotel. It worked really well in Japan.

Food and Intolerance

Japan cuisine is amazing and nothing to be afraid of except if you are strict vegan or have fish/seafood/sesame/nut allergy. Because… fish or seafood seasoning is in almost everything, and sesame, too. In that case, I would carry an allergy card.

When in Japan… matcha break at Anraku-ji

Unless in very small towns, you will get tons of non-Japanese food or Japanese version of world food, usually in family-run cafes or chain restaurants. My favourite chain is Komeda’s Coffee and they do a great lot of Western-influenced food (yoshoku). Their menu also has detailed allergen information.

My favourite food… Hiroshima style okonomiyaki (from Hiroshima-tei in Nagasaki)

I use Google Maps for ratings and don’t tend to go to themed or trendy restaurants and have done well with that approach. Tabelog is a Japanese website (English available) which the foodies allegedly use, and it also offers options to book online.

Sushi ranges from super cheap like in this hole in the wall Nagasaki shop to luxurious

Also, some of the cafes and restaurants are breathtakingly beautiful. I am normally not a big fan of themed or “instagram” restaurants, but this one at Mihara Gardens in Nagasaki, was both beautiful and had nice food

Last not least, in addition to all the classic Japanese cooking and international food, you get seasonal food – takoyaki and other grilled bits on a stick at summer festivals, cool desserts in the summer heat, eel in winter… my favourite is probably shaved ice (kakigori). I love it so much, I always seek out places that sell it – it can be harder to fin din the cooler months, but is ubiquitous in summer.

Matcha kakigori at Shimabara Mizuyashiki, Nagasaki Prefecture

Last not least, being the cheapskate, I check out bigger supermarkets for their nice prepared meals. When I studied in Nagasaki, I was a regular customer at the deli counter of my local supermarket – supermarket meals are freshly prepared and are definitely five notches up from anything we get here in Europe in a supermarket.

Sightseeing

Here, I don’t really have much to say because every traveller to Japan will probably have consulted a travel guide of some sort for attractions that interest them.

A glorious Fushimi Inari morning, 2008

It is fair to say that the big cities of Tokyo and Kyoto get millions of visitors and yes, some attractions are oversubscribed and incredibly crowded. In Kyoto, this definitely can be said for Kiyumizu-dera and Kinkakuji temples, Fushimi Inari Shrine and Arashiyama Bamboo forest. If visiting these attractions, it pays to be there at opening time before the tour buses roll in in the late morning.

The classic Ginkaku-ji shot shortly after opening time, May 2024

Shrines are usually open 24 hours and can be enjoyed quietly at night time.

Senso-ji in Tokyo, another place that can be packed

When planning your trip, it really pays to seek out the lesser-known attractions. I understand that everyone might wish to visit the magnificent Kyoto temples, and Kyoto can feel quite crowded in the most popular spots. However – there are superb alternatives just a short walk or train ride away.

Eikan-do, a classic Kyoto temple that isn’t overrun

Or just add some less famous destinations to your itinerary. When I studied for a few weeks in Nagasaki last year, I was surprised how little tourism there was. Sure, the big sights of Glover Gardens ant the PEace Park and Atomic Bomb Museum were busy but never stifling, but Nagasaki has tons of things to see and do beyond that and you won’t get bored there.

Nagasaki’s Yasaka Shine: barely a soul there

A lot of attractions operate pre-booking systems, like the much hyped Ghibli Museum in Mitaka. I visited before the Japan tourist boom and really liked it, but then, I am no Ghibli nut. I had a Japanese friend buy the tickets, and it was her suggestions, because she wanted to visit, so I jumped at the chance.Fortunately, there are always good alternatives. Here are some slightly less oversubscribed location that inspired Studio Ghibli films.

It definitely pays to look around and pre-book some more exclusive tours and experiences where they limit the number of visitors. I have stumped up 25 Euros for exclusive access to the UNESCO World Heritage Saiho-ji in Kyoto, In= am interested to see how the crowd management by payment works.

Shop until you Drop

Last not least… Shopping! Japan is a shopping paradise. For me, it always has been. I bought lenses for my Nikon cameras, fabrics, traditional ceramics, clothes, food… you name it.

It doesn’t take much to simply enjoy shopping in Japan, and for me, Japan is the least rip-off country when buying anything – vendors are straight about the provenance of something, prices are fixed, nobody will push to buy. It is simply a delight.

A foreigners favourite is Don Quijote, a bargain store. I’ve been to one in Nagasaki and almost had a panic attack in there. It is crammed with goods and the music and jingles are deafening. I may try again but I will keep the exit well in sight.

Local supermarkets, drug stores, book shops, department stores, traditional stores… all are awaiting your visits. Many offer tax-free shopping and often have signs in English at the entrance. It is necessary to carry your passport and in the less oversubscribed shops, taking the tax off is easily done at checkout.

Recommended Reading

Let’s finish this post with a bit of blog promotion. If you liked this post, and want to read more about Japan slightly off the beaten track, please feel free to read some of my other Japan posts.

Although I have been visiting Japan for nearly two decades, my first Japan post on this blog was actually in 2020, when I was amazed how swiftly Japan Airlines refunded our flights due to COVID restrictions. A great intro to how fair and square Japanese travel industry works, perhaps.

I spent most of my time in Nagasaki, so a lot of posts are about Nagasaki prefecture. I started with a post on onsen etiquette, which comes fairly useful for all of Japan.

If you are considering visiting Nagasaki, please take a look at this Nagasaki itinerary, too. And trying to give one of my favourite places there some attention, I published a post about Nagasaki Temple Street. And my only Japan shopping post so far is about… fabric shopping.

With my trip to Kansai earlier this year, I made a Kansai Itinerary, mixing the well-known with the slightly hidden, and, sticking to Kansai, wrote about my trip to Koya-san. There is a fair bit on Kyoto coming too, starting with a guide to cycling in Kyoto (by far the best mode of transport in Kyoto).

The Small Print

These are my practical Japan tips condensed in a short post. Frequent travellers and regular visitors might smile at me for stating the obvious, but a lot of what’s in here I learned from a Japanese friend of a friend who graciously showed me around on my first ever visit to Japan.

Me on my first ever day in Japan in… urrrr… 2004

I pay my own way for everything and don’t really generate income from this blog but am in regular employment, so I am a tourist with a penchant for Japan. I don’t do credit card points, paid cooperations, discounts in favour for a review. The only commercial interest here right now is affiliate links to Booking.com, which I use on most of my accommodations. I will be grateful if you book through these links (which will earn me a small commission) but if you don’t, that’s okay, too. I don’t know where this blog is going, right now, I just enjoy sharing tips and photographs, and I find writing quite relaxing balance to my demanding hospital job.



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