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Top Tips for Your First Trip to Japan

Visiting Japan can be stressful, if only because there are so many things to consider. This is especially the case if it's going to be your first time in Japan—you literally have no idea what to expect! Except of course you do, since you've found this article.

Continue reading to learn the most important things to keep in mind for your first time in Japan before you book your flight to Tokyo. Even if you’ve already been to this beautiful country, these priceless tips are timeless—every traveler to Japan would do well to read through them!

1. Buy a Japan Rail Pass—or Don’t

Japan has one of the most outstanding train systems in the world, but it can also be one of the most expensive. As a result, many travelers save money buying a Japan Rail Pass, which permits unlimited travel on trains (as well as some buses and ferries) operated by the Japan Railways company.

In general, if you plan to visit Japan for between 7-21 days, and plan to use at least two Shinkansen bullet trains per week, a JR Pass is a prudent investment. Otherwise (for example, if you plan to primarily use private trains or buses, or local JR services), it might make more sense to buy tickets at the train station with cash. TIP: The HyperDia tool can help you browse and price out train journeys, which you can then compare to the cost of a pass!

2. Plan on Having Lots of Cash

One thing that surprises many travelers who are planning their first time in Japan is the number of businesses in this futuristic country that accept only analog (i.e. cash) payments. While the range of cash you need can vary from about ¥5,000 per person, per day for budget travelers to ¥25,000 (and far up) for more luxurious trips, the strategy for getting cash is the same.

If you don’t change out your home country’s currency for yen at a manner or automated currency exchange booth at the airport or your hotel, ATMs inside 7/11 and Lawson convenience stores plus Japan Post outlets always accept foreign cards. Note that ATMs at local Japanese banks don’t accept foreign cards, so you shouldn’t waste your time trying those ones.

3. Research Ways to Stay Connected

In the not-too-distant past, it was impossible for foreigners to buy SIM cards in Japan; WiFi was also not prevalent at hotels and in other public areas. These days, however, arrival areas at Japanese airports like Tokyo-Haneda and Osaka-Kansai are awash with SIM cards offering as much data as you could want; free WiFi is everywhere.

Speaking of WiFi, if you’re traveling in a group, it might be more sensible to buy a mobile WiFi unit, which allows you to connect multiple devices to a hotspot that uses just one unlimited data SIM, as opposed to each person buying their own SIM. Another option is to check with your home mobile carrier, and see if they offer any data packages for traveling in Japan.

4. Wander Off the Beaten Path

One major advantage of having an internet connection while traveling in Japan? You don’t have to stay tethered to the tourist trail!

If you’re taking a shorter trip to Japan, this can simply entail being creative with the day trips you take—consider one to quirky Kobe from Osaka, or to underrated Yokohama from Tokyo. For longer stays in Japan, you can visit smaller islands such as spiritual Shikoku, wild Hokkaido, and eclectic Kyushu, or travel to underrated regions like Tohoku in northern Honshu (Japan’s main island), or San’in in the far west.

5. Consider All Four Seasons Equally

If it’s your first trip to Japan, it’s tempting to want to take it during cherry blossom season—and with good reason. On the other hand, while there are few spectacles more beautiful than sakura blossoms (except perhaps fiery autumn leaves), all Japan’s seasons have their merits.

Winter snow can add a mysterious air to your trip, especially on the high Alpine slopes of Zao Onsen in Yamagata prefecture, while the lush greenery of the tsuyu monsoon in summer makes for a refreshing visit to the pilgrimage trails of Wakayama prefecture.

More specifically, “shoulder” months like May and October offer sunny skies and green hillsides just after and before the spring and autumn tourist rushes, respectfully. Every season brings something special of its own so in the end it just depends on what you, as a first time visitor, would like to experience in Japan.

6. Don’t Stress Over the Language Barrier

While it’s true that not all Japanese people speak English, even if a local person you meet can’t speak your language and you can’t speak Japanese, he or she will still go out of the way to be helpful. However, it’s always a good idea to learn a few key phrases in the local language before an international trip.

Thankfully, as a result of the excellent “Japanese” patch within the mobile application, you can always fall back on Google Translate. You can actually photograph a page of Japanese text, and it will translate it to English for you! The voice-translation is also excellent.

7. Be Strategic About Special Events

Whether or not you actually plan to attend any of the sporting and commercial events that Japan will be hosting over the next few years, you’ll need to be strategic if you plan to visit when they’re happening. As a general rule, if you expect to be in Japan when the big events are happening, the farther away you can be from the cities where they occur (usually Tokyo and Osaka) the better.

In particular, stay a few days in Hokkaido, which is always a great choice—why not stroll through fields of lavender, or ski down snow-covered mountains, instead of pushing your way through crowds? Okinawa is another destination that while popular, tends to lack extreme surges in tourism throughout the year (with the exception of the wild “Golden Week” between about April 28 and May 5).

Conclusion

Whether it’s your first time in Japan or your fifth, you can never plan enough detailed travel in this country. From concerns about transport and connectivity, to matters like the seasonal colors that will serve as your backdrop, practical elements of planning a trip to Japan are just as important as the Japan destinations you choose to visit.

Speaking of practical matters, be sure to search Skyscanner for flights to Japan below. 👇