Interested in visiting Japan? You have intersected with my personal notes for what I’ve found, either first-hand or second-hand, regarding Japan. As I find more things, I will post them. You will find the best time to go to Japan, foods to try and a host of other tips.
Best Time to Visit Japan
Short answer: April, October and November.
Long answer: Japan is rather expansive and different parts fall under different climate zone. For Hokkaido, check out this link for Hokkaido Climate. The very helpful Japan Guide has a listing by month for Japan as a whole. I will say generally spring (for cherry blossoms) and autumn (for fall foliage) will be your periods of interest, but prepare to be inundated by tourists if you go anywhere slightly popular during these peak times.
If you are visiting Okinawa, try not to visit in the July and August timeframe (typhoons). Late Jan, Feb, spring and autumn are best, depending on what you are looking to do. If you want to swim, go late spring or early autumn.
Miscellaneous Travel Tips for Japan
Japan is an island nation comprised of four major islands alongside more than sixty-five-thousand smaller islands. From a travel standpoint, Japan can be quite diverse as it pulls together natural influences from three different ecozones and contains numerous ecoregions, due in part to Japan’s north to south length. The southerly islands, such as the Ryukyu Islands including Okinawa, experience more of a subtropical climate versus the northern regions, for instance, the major Japanese island of Hokkaido, which experience a more temperate climate.
From the concentrated, bustling city of Tokyo to the uninhabited islands in the north or south, you have a lot to explore.
This is a random assortment of places that you might be interested in if you are visiting Japan. The obvious tourist draws might or might not be included—this is really more of a random listing that is or was of interest to me (e.g. it doesn’t include Tokyo because everyone knows that Tokyo is in Japan and is worth a visit). This isn’t meant to give you a complete picture of these places but give you things to search about to see if you are interested:
The Ryukyu Islands (aka Nansei Islands)
An island chain in southernmost area of Japan. Up until the 19th century, this area was part of the Ryukyu Kingdom (e.g. not Japan). Due to issues between China and Japan, those living in Ryukyu did not speak Japanese (they had/have their own language) or observe Japanese customs. As such, the way of life is different here than other parts of “historical” Japan. (For an interesting write-up on the Ryukyu Kingdom, check out this link).
The Ryukyu Islands are a popular place for charter fishing, snorkeling, diving, chilling on the beach and exploring. The largest and perhaps most popular island in the Ryukyu’s is Okinawa, but there are numerous islands that are less urban-sprawl. Also in the Ryukyu’s are the Yaeyama Islands, including Ishigaki.
Go between October and May. Get there from Tokyo, Osaka and Taiwan. Hop between the islands on car ferries. Stay in minshuku (guesthouses)
Ishikawa and specifically Kanazawa
Seems like a somewhat off the tourist path place to check out traditional Japanese architecture and an epicentre of great food
North of Tokyo
Visit Akita, an hour flight from or four-hour train ride from Tokyo and nearby Nyuto for its onsenkyo (forest hot springs in rustic resorts). Kiritanpo (rice dumplings) and the namesake hot pot, sake-brewing in winter.
Osaka, Kyoto, Nara and thereabouts. Osaka is your straight up city which I think is sorta cool (I prefer the vibe to Tokyo), Kyoto is full of shrines/temples and nature on the outskirts (while its downtown isn’t so pretty), Nara is a touristy town with a park that has docile deer which come up to you. To the west a smidge from Osaka is Kobe, Japan of Kobe Beef fame. You could stay in Kyoto or Osaka and see all this stuff on day trips with trains as the trains are very quick (although can be pricey if you dont have a pass). If you are really into denim, check out Kojima. Makes a great day trip for denim shopping.
Chill city to the southwest. Maybe a bit overblown in some articles. Some of the neighborhoods have a real cool feel to them. The yatai street food situation is over-hyped in my opinion. If you are interested in that, I’d say wander in the evening and find ones away from the main river strip.
Island south of Kyushu. Links up with Kyushu. Natural scenery, rain, forests, mountains, etc.
Haven’t dug in depth to this major island but a lot of Japan’s farming comes from here, including cheeses, etc. As such, I think this would be a good, relaxed place to check out in the right season (located far north). Also, great for skiing and hot springs. If visiting in winter, look into Sapporo Snow Festival held around February.
If you are near Hiroshima, you can swing over to Okunoshima Island which is also known as Rabbit Island due to the rabbit populations there.
An island full of art
Is Japan Expensive?
Lodging is somewhat elevated. Food can run you anywhere from $3 on up. Cheap places to find food are the prepared foods section located in grocery stores where you can get things like tempura cuttlefish for $.50/ea and so forth. Then you have plenty of noodle shops and the like where you can get away with a meal for $3-5 and on up. Transportation can definitely eat up a good chunk of your budget as trains are not cheap which is where rail passes come in (mentioned below).
Tipping in Japan
Generally, do not tip in Japan.
Do I need a Visa before visiting Japan?
Generally no. US visitors can stay 90 days. See here for listing of those that do not require a visa to visit Japan.
Transportation into and around Japan
Flying into Japan
Japan is serviced by the low cost carriers Peach Aviation and Vanilla Air (flying to nearby Asian destinations such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and Korea) and Jetstar (flying to Australia, Singapore, and the Philippines).
Note that Peach Airlines is an awful carrier. They ditched me in Taiwan and forced me into buying a new ticket on another carrier due flight cancellations of their own incompetence (they claimed scheduling issues). You can read a brief bit about that here. Do Not Fly Peach Airlines!
Taking the Ferry into Japan
Another option is to take the ferry between Korea and Japan. See a map and information at the Korean Tourism Site.
Transportation from the Airport to Tokyo
Try to fly into and out of Haneda Airport (HND). The easiest and cheapest transportation into central Tokyo from Haneda Airport is a simple Monorail ticket which is around $5 each way and is about a 20-30 minute ride. There are express and local trains and you ride it to the end (Hamamatsucho station). From there, you can walk to Ginza (30 mins) or transfer to a subway line that gets you nearest your destination (JR Line, Oedo Line, etc.). Japan Guide has a nice graphic and a couple other options.
If you fly into Narita, you have a couple options (for further options, check Japan Guide).
If the fastest (within reason) is your goal, then the best option is the JR Narita Express (NEX) Line. Sometimes they run promotions so check their site. The NEX takes 50 minutes or so but costs north of 3,000 JPY. For up to date numbers, check the fare here.
To save money, take the Tokyo Shuttle or Access Narita buses. The Tokyo Shuttle you buy a ticket inside. Access Narita you pay on-board. Tokyo Shuttle has WiFi and power on most buses. Access Narita has bathrooms.
If cost is your main concern (within reason) but you want to take a train, your best bet is to take the JR Sobu Line which leaves hourly. It costs less than half of the NEX and takes about 90 minutes, bringing you directly to Tokyo Station (or directly to Narita if going to the airport). You can buy your ticket at a JR desk.
Transportation from the KIX Airport to Osaka, Kobe or Kyoto
If you fly into (or out of) KIX Airport in Osaka, you have a couple options.
If you are trying to go from KIX to Osaka, I suggest the cheaper, more-direct but slower JR Rapid Service which goes from KIX Airport to Osaka.
If you are going from KIX to Kyoto, I suggest getting a JR Kansai Area Pass for the day and jumping on the JR Airport Express Haruka. Or, if you have to kill, stop off in Osaka, put your bags in the lockers in the train station, and check out Osaka, and then carry on. The JR Kansai Area Pass allows you to do these types of things.
Transportation from the Naha Airport in Okinawa into Naha
Take the Okinawa City Monorail which connects from the airport directly into town.
Getting Around Japan
Train schedules are located here.
One thing to keep in mind is that there is a dazzling (and confusing) array of rail passes that you can choose from, depending on what region you are in, how many days you need them for, and your status (visitor, resident, etc). It is really specific to you and it’s hard to break it down here. The high-high-high level summary is that there is a pass that gets you all over Japan, there are passes that get you around each region and then there are some special passes within cities, etc.
For the city standpoint, do some research on what is available. For instance, if you are in Kyoto, the all-day unlimited subway pass is a great deal if you take the subway more than twice in a day. You can also add unlimited bus to it (which I don’t do since I just walk).
Do note that some passes cannot be bought inside Japan, so your research should be done before you leave.
And on this topic, if you are trying to go from Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka, there is a shinkansen train which makes more stops than the fast ones, but is 50% cheaper or so, includes a seat reservation and a free drink. For information on this, check Platt Kodama. You book this at a JR Tours window (like the one in Tokyo Station).
If you want to do it at the cheapest price altogether, check out the bus, which takes half a day.
Riding the Subway, Bus and Trains within a city/town in Japan
Just a quick note on how this often works for the subways and city trains. You are going to see ticket machines and nearby (above) that a big map showing all the destinations served. It will tell you how much it is to get to each destination. Go to ticket machine, put in money and select the ticket for that value. For instance, if you are at Point A and need to get to Point B, locate Point B on the map and note the fare (let’s say 100JPY). Then put the 100JPY into the vending machine and select a 100JPY ticket. Feed that ticket into the subway gate and keep it as you will need to insert it in the machine on your way out. If you mess up, there are fare adjustment machines or you can see the attendant (if the booth is attended).
For the bus, board the bus and either take a ticket (showing where you got on) or take a seat (the driver may do it this way remembering where you got on). A monitor in the front of the bus might show you what the price is (logically increases as the bus continues on) or you can ask the driver what you owe. Insert the money into the bus and leave the bus.
What to Buy & Try in Japan
Foods to Try when visiting Japan
Before we get into actual food to try, one word (or world) you might want to delve into further is “izakaya” which is similar to a western gastropub. Another is “tachinomiya” which is a stand-up sake bar (with some rudimentary food).
In addition, Tokyo is home to a good number of Michelin-starred restaurants, including ones that aren’t too harsh on the wallet. If you are really into food, it might be a good idea to check out the listings.
If you are in Tokyo looking for quality groceries, prepared foods and the like, check out the word “depachika”. These are essentially high-end food floors located in the lower levels (basement) of department stores.
As mentioned, normal grocery stores have cheap prepared food.
Also, be prepared to use a vending machine when entering a restaurant. If you enter a restaurant, look to your left and right to see if there is a vending machine. Feed your money in, pick what you want and a ticket will spit out. Then take your seat and hand the ticket to the server/employee who will then serve you. Sometimes there are pictures with numbers to help you bridge the gap if you can’t read Japanese, other times you will need to ask or just roll the dice.
In Kyoto, visit the Nishiki Market for streetfood such as octopus dumplings and a host of other treats.
For a couple dish to try while visiting Japan:
- Noodle Soups: these will include Soba, Ramen, Udon and others. You might want to look up the japanese alphabet (both Hiragana and Katakana) and memorize what these three noodles look like in Japanese characters. Note that if you think Ramen noodle soup is what you get in those $.79 packages that you had in college, you need to erase that idea. If you go to Japan and don’t try the ramen soup, you are a fool.
- Kobe Beef: not much needs to be said but this is a good place to try to real deal as many places around the world serving Kobe Beef are only selling you the idea that you are eating Kobe Beef.
- Takoyaki: (street-food) flour balls with octopus, ginger and green onions inside. Think hot, gooey street food.
- Okonomiyaki: best as street food but you can also find them in certain restaurants. It is like a jacked-up pancake with cabbage, shredded yam (like potato), egg and some other jive.
- Unagi: freshwater eel is a delicacy here and is quite popular. The eel is cooked, topped with a sweet glaze and typically served over a bowl of rice (Unagi-don).
- Sukiyaki: Beef (thin-sliced), vegetables and sauce. Cooked in one pot. Typically you dip your beef into raw egg before eating
- Shabu Shabu: If you want to do up a hot pot operation and want to do something different than sukiyaki, go for shyabu-shyabu which is typically going to be beef/meat cooked in dashi (stock) and vegetables over rice.
- Japanese Curry Rice: if you like curry, this is a different derivative than what you are used to, but the same idea. Curry sauce over rice.
Products to Buy in Japan
- Japanese Whiskey, including the Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask which is hard to find stateside
- Japanese knifes and scissors. Also good strainers, graters and other kitchen items – check Kappabashi-dori (a street in Tokyo north of Tokyo Station). Take Ginza Line to Tawaramachi station and head west. Good knife shops there as well. Don’t visit on holidays or Sunday. Not open late.
- Writing utensils such as fountain pens, markers, pencils and stationary
- Kewpie Mayonaise: the famous Japanese mayonaise. Can find it stateside though
- Kit-Kat candy: in Japan, they sell a whole slew of flavours of Kit Kats (having put out over 200 flavours since 2000). If you want to try a Potato-flavoured Kit Kat, or a Fruit Parfait Kit Kat, or a Creme-Brulee Kit Kat this is the time. Last time I was there, they had Wasabi Kit-Kats although they are expensive.
- Vintage Clothes. Some are wildly overpriced but other shops have great stuff for next to nothing (as in, how it used to be)
- New Clothes: there are some great designs and materials here. One of the noteworthy standpoints is Japanese Denim. Read up on the Osaka Five and then go from there.
- Makombu: seaweed (kelp) for making dashi (stock) although you can find some good stuff stateside as well.
- Pottery: If visiting Okinawa, check out Tsuboya Yachimun St near the Tsuboya Ceramics Museum
Special Experiences in Japan
Go to an onsen (a public bath), stay in a ryokan (traditional Japanese hotel/B&B) and sitting on a high-tech Japanese toilet and playing with the controls.
Also, the Japanese have a great music scene. Cover charges can be pretty high by western standards but the experience is very rich.
Simple Words and Phrases in Japanese
If you want to brush up on some lingo before visiting Japan, WikiTravel, as usual, has a nice Phrase Book. Personally I find learning the alphabets (Katakana especially) can be especially helpful to a traveler but I realize that the time investment is probably not worth it to most. Katakana is generally used for foreign words, so that “Radio” becomes spelled out in Japanese katakana letters to read “Rajio”. As such, if you can read the alphabet, you can get a good idea of what the signs are saying. At the very least, learn how to read Ramen. ; )
Quick Travel Facts About Japan
What Power Plugs are Used in Japan:
- The American Plugs (Type A only) is the plug of choice in Japan. Note that I did not see any instances of the Type B plug (the one with three prongs instead of two). Frequency is 50-60Hz and Voltage is 100. Ensure that your electrical devices can handle the lower voltage. If your device does not take the lower voltage, you will need a converter. Remember, a mere adapter does not convert the electricity, only gets the plug in the wall. Frequency varies by location as seen in this chart.
What currency is used in Japan?
- Japanese Yen (JPY). See conversion.
To do a quick & dirty conversion on the fly between JPY and USD (given the rates as of this writing of 100JPY = $1USD) – move the decimal over two spots. So 1,000JPY becomes $10.
Other tips about Japan
- You might want to buy some toilet paper to carry with you as public toilets frequently do not offer it. Also, many restaurants do not provide napkins.
More Information on Travel to Japan
- The best universal resource I found has been Japan Guide (as linked above).
- A great rock bar in Okinawa. If you are in Naha, Okinawa and looking for a really chill rock bar, check out Kuro Rock Bar at 3-13-61, Makishi, Naha, Okinawa. Operating hours last I knew were 21:00 to Close. Great people.
The following is a rambled mess of nonsense that might contain gems. These are from some magazines that I read while flying and didn’t have internet and just jotted notes into my phone:
Tsukiji Fish Market: largest wholesale fish market in world
Kappabashi-dori: Many kitchen shops on Kappabashi-dori
Sembikiya: Oldest fruit shop in Japan. Largest at Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower
Senso-ji: Historic Buddhist temple in Asakusa neighborhood.
Kimkatsu: katsuretsu restaurant
Toshimaen Niwa no Yu sento: Public Bathhouse, serene, supersento
Record stores: Disc Shop Zero, Gan-ban, Manhattan Records
Sushi-sho: Alain Ducasse notes “is a must. Nobody knows him. He has no Michelin stars and no press, but he embodies the evolution of sushi traditions”
Kamakura: 1-hour south of Tokyo, former capital. Reminiscent of Nice. Great vegetables.
Mina Perhonen: very interesting gift shop on Jingumae
Ebisu neighborhood: popping hood. Check out Caffe Il Solito coffeehouse.
Aoyama neighborhood: fashion mecca, mature version of Harajuku
Asakusa neighborhood: home of traditional Japanese culture in Tokyo.
Daikanyama & Nakemeguro neighborhoods: great to explore adjacent hoods on foot
Isetan Shinjuku: Large department store. Start at top and go down.
Omotesando: tree lined street with great shopping
Imperial Palace Gardens: eye-catching gardens representing four seasons
Gen Yamamoto: Recommended cocktail bar in Azabu-Juban.
Bar High Five: Bar in Ginza that decides what to make you
21_21 Design Sight museum: museum with international design
Reality Lab – Issey Miyake: showcase/lab for Miyake’s clothing and product designs
Tokyo Dome: catch a baseball game
Tokyo Hands: cool craft (and other stuff) store
JAPAN/Kyoto (more of a taste of traditional Japan than Tokyo)
Nishiki Market: Ducasse “most civilized street for food in the world. They sell everything, and its all at its best”. Lots of great condiments, such as yuba and chirimen jako seasoned with sansho berries.
Furikake: japanese condiment/seasoning for extra umami. Smoked-dried cured tuna flakeswith sesame seeds and seaweed.