Japan Bound: Top Tips for Navigating Your Upcoming Trip to the Land of the Rising Sun
Japan Bound: Top Tips for Navigating Your Upcoming Trip to the Land of the Rising Sun - Research Flights and Lodging Early to Save Big
One of the best ways to save big on your upcoming trip to Japan is to research flights and lodging early. With a bit of advanced planning, you can often score much cheaper airfare and accommodation costs compared to booking last minute.
I always start planning my trips to Japan at least 2-3 months in advance. This gives me time to monitor flight deals and lock in the lowest fares. While last minute deals do sometimes pop up, more often than not the cheapest economy class tickets get snatched up quickly. I use Google Flights to set price alerts and track prices on various routes. Being flexible with your departure airport and travel dates also helps increase your odds of finding a bargain.
Additionally, many of Japan's most popular hotels and ryokans fill up months before peak travel seasons. By reserving your lodging early, you can take your pick of top-rated spots before they sell out. Apps like Booking.com make it easy to compare hotels and filter by price, reviews, location, etc. Locking in refundable reservations also gives you flexibility if plans change.
During cherry blossom season, for example, hotels get booked up incredibly fast, especially in Kyoto. One year I waited too long and ended up paying way more than I wanted at a mediocre tourist trap. After that experience, I now always book lodging at least 4-5 months out for hanami season.
The same goes for traveling in late March/early April during the busy graduation trip weeks. Student tour groups from across Asia flock to Japan this time of year. Hotels and flights soar in price if you don't plan ahead.
Booking as far in advance as possible has saved me hundreds of dollars on both flights and hotels for my Japan trips. I've scored roundtrip economy tickets from California for under $500 by monitoring prices and being flexible. I also snagged stays at nice Tokyo and Kyoto hotels for $75-$100 per night simply by reserving early before rates jumped up.
What else is in this post?
- Japan Bound: Top Tips for Navigating Your Upcoming Trip to the Land of the Rising Sun - Research Flights and Lodging Early to Save Big
- Japan Bound: Top Tips for Navigating Your Upcoming Trip to the Land of the Rising Sun - Pack Light - You'll Be Doing Lots of Walking
- Japan Bound: Top Tips for Navigating Your Upcoming Trip to the Land of the Rising Sun - Get a Japan Rail Pass for Easy Train Travel
- Japan Bound: Top Tips for Navigating Your Upcoming Trip to the Land of the Rising Sun - Learn Basic Japanese Phrases and Etiquette
- Japan Bound: Top Tips for Navigating Your Upcoming Trip to the Land of the Rising Sun - Visit Temples, Shrines, Gardens and Museums
- Japan Bound: Top Tips for Navigating Your Upcoming Trip to the Land of the Rising Sun - Eat Your Way Through the Cities and Countryside
- Japan Bound: Top Tips for Navigating Your Upcoming Trip to the Land of the Rising Sun - Sing Karaoke and Experience Japanese Nightlife
- Japan Bound: Top Tips for Navigating Your Upcoming Trip to the Land of the Rising Sun - See the Old and the New - From Kyoto to Tokyo
Japan Bound: Top Tips for Navigating Your Upcoming Trip to the Land of the Rising Sun - Pack Light - You'll Be Doing Lots of Walking
Packing light is essential for any Japan trip, as you'll likely be walking a whole lot while exploring its cities. With minimal car ownership and an extensive, punctual rail network, the Japanese heavily rely on their own two feet for transport. Be prepared to hoof it between train stations, sights, restaurants and your lodging.
I made the mistake of overpacking on my first visit to Tokyo. Lugging my giant, overweight suitcase across town quickly got old. My back and shoulders ached constantly. Now I stick to a carry-on sized bag, even for longer Japan vacations. Packing light forces you to bring only essentials and versatile clothing you can mix and match.
The key is choosing a small, durable bag that fits all your stuff yet won't weigh you down. I'm a fan of the Osprey Farpoint 40 - it opens fully for easy packing, fits in overhead bins and distributes weight onto my hips. A crossbody purse holds valuables securely while sightseeing hands-free.
Keep clothing choices minimal - 2 pairs of comfy walking shoes, 3-4 tops, a jacket, 2 pairs of pants or jeans, lightweight dress options, and minimal accessories will suffice. Bring layers you can add or peel off as weather fluctuates. Synthetic fabrics and merino wool resist wrinkles and odors, perfect for re-wearing.
Unless you'll heavily use camera, laptop or other electronics, go mobile. Today's smartphones capture stunning photos and handle travel logistics just fine. Apps like Google Translate condense dictionaries into your pocket. E-readers eliminate heavy books. Portable battery packs recharge devices on the go.
Walkability pays off most when exploring temples and shrines. From Kiyomizu-dera's steep pathways to Fushimi Inari's endless torii gates, these sites involve lots of footsteps up and down slopes. I learned my lesson after nearly passing out from climbing Mt Inari in summer heat with a huge backpack. Now I carry just a hydration vest and small hip pack.
Japan Bound: Top Tips for Navigating Your Upcoming Trip to the Land of the Rising Sun - Get a Japan Rail Pass for Easy Train Travel
Japan’s extensive and efficient rail network makes getting around easy, especially with a Japan Rail Pass. These cost-saving passes allow unlimited travel on most trains including high-speed bullet trains, saving you boatloads of cash versus buying individual tickets. For first-timers, passes simplify planning and spur flexible, spontaneous exploration across the country.
According to Torsten, an avid Japan traveler, “The JR pass was a total game-changer that let me maximize my time and budget on trips. Without the pass I'd have wasted tons of time figuring out tickets and spent way more on transport between cities.”
He enthusiastically recommends purchasing a pass in advance for any trip over a week or involving bullet train rides between major cities. On his most recent two week trip, Torsten's 7-day rail pass paid for itself after just the long haul Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto. The pass then allowed him to freely crisscross between cities and make impulsive trips to places like Hakone and Nara he’d otherwise skip to avoid ticket costs piling up.
Fellow Japanophile Chris echoes Torsten’s advice after relying on rail passes for years of Japan travel: “Being able to just hop on any train has given me the confidence to be more adventurous and stray off the beaten path. I've found and explored places I'd never have gone without the flexiblity of the pass.”
He was initially hesitant to spend money upfront on a pass but says “it was easily one of the best travel purchases I've made in terms of value delivered.” Chris appreciates the ease of flashing his pass to board trains versus fumbling with individual tickets in a foreign language.
Japan first-timer Laura took Torsten and Chris’s advice when planning her upcoming trip: “As a newbie I found the pass so helpful for pre-planning efficient travel between the places I wanted to see. It made mapping out travel days simple knowing I could take any train that fit my schedule.”
She’s excited to use the pass to hit cities like Osaka and Kanazawa plus make side trips to Himeji Castle and the Japanese Alps along the way. “The pass has given me flexibility to be spontaneous without breaking my budget,” Laura says. “I can wander and take unplanned adventures, knowing trains are covered.”
Japan Bound: Top Tips for Navigating Your Upcoming Trip to the Land of the Rising Sun - Learn Basic Japanese Phrases and Etiquette
While English signage in Japan’s big cities has improved, don’t expect much English once you venture off the beaten tourist track. Locals will appreciate any effort to speak their language. Torsten encourages first-timers: “even just simple phrases or manners go a long way towards smoothing your travels.”
Fellow Japan enthusiast Chris always makes an effort to learn key words and phrases when visiting foreign countries: “The locals really light up and engage more when they hear you trying to speak their tongue.” In Japan, he focused on basics like greetings, gratitude and ordering food. Chris says, “just knowing ‘arigatou gozaimasu’ (thank you) and ‘oishii’ (delicious) allowed me to be polite and compliment my hosts.”
He also emphasized, “please learn and use ‘sumimasen’ (excuse me/sorry) as this is critical for not offending folks in crowded public places.” Proper etiquette like removing shoes before entering homes or temples also shows respect for traditions.
“Japanese people appreciate when foreigners take the time to respect their culture” advises Kim, who moved to Tokyo from America. She makes an effort to model polite behaviors for visiting friends: “Seeing me bow or remove my shoes prompts them to do the same.” Kim adds, “even just imitating the way locals handle chopsticks impresses Japanese people.”
Laura incorporated language lessons into her trip planning: “I wanted to avoid standing out as an ignorant tourist.” She used apps like Duolingo to pick up essential restaurant vocabulary and travel phrases for airports, hotels and trains. Laura also watched YouTube videos on mannerisms like bowing, gift giving and paying respect at shrines.
“I learned that speaking quietly and not overly expressing emotions is valued in Japan” she explains. Laura was careful to avoid behaviors considered rude like eating or walking while on her phone, blowing her nose in public, or wearing outdoor shoes into sacred spaces.
Torsten says learning the local lingo also pays off outside big cities: “on a hiking trip in rural Hokkaido, no one spoke English but I got by on the Japanese I'd learned.” He was grateful he'd practiced food vocab so he could read menus and order unfamiliar regional specialties.
Even learning just the basics empowers richer connections, as Chris discovered: “I loved how people's eyes lit up when I ordered in Japanese. Shop owners would become much friendlier, and taxi drivers excitedly tried conversing.” He encourages, “you'll gain way more from your travels by showing interest in the local language.”
Japan Bound: Top Tips for Navigating Your Upcoming Trip to the Land of the Rising Sun - Visit Temples, Shrines, Gardens and Museums
Japan's centuries-old temples, shrines, gardens and museums offer travelers glimpses into the country's rich culture and history. Torsten always budgets plenty of time to wander these sites on visits, noting "you can't really grasp the essence of Japan without engaging with its spiritual heart and traditions."
Fellow Japan lover Chris seeks out at least one major temple or shrine in each city he visits. In Kyoto, he was awed by the giant vermilion gates and hillside setting of Kiyomizu-dera. "It was incredible seeing pilgrims praying and sipping sacred waters there, just as they have for centuries." In Nara, Chris was thrilled to feed packets of deer crackers to the resident sika deer at Kasuga Taisha shrine.
Kim always visits the breathtaking moss garden at Saiho-ji temple when in Kyoto. "The vibrant 120 different moss species blanket the ground like a plush green carpet. I've never experienced such serenity while strolling a garden," she effuses.
Laura built ample time into her first Japan trip itinerary to explore top sites like Senso-ji temple's enormous red lantern gate in Asakusa. She was enthralled watching incense smoke swirl as monks chanted hypnotic sutras. "I now understand why visiting temples is an essential part of really absorbing Japanese culture," Laura reflects.
In addition to temples and shrines, Torsten loves contemplating how Japan harmoniously blends ancient traditions with modernity while strolling through gardens like Rikugien in Tokyo. Designed to reflect 88 scenes from legendary poems, Rikugien's manicured trees and hills beautifully symbolize this balance.
Torsten also highly recommends visiting museums to enrich understanding of Japanese art, culture, history and philosophy. "I gained a much deeper appreciation for aesthetics like wabi sabi's understated beauty and veneration of transience after exploring the Idemitsu Museum of Arts," he explains.
Chris always drops by the National Museum of Modern Art when in Tokyo. "Seeing ukiyo-e woodblock prints and modern sculpture situated together in conversation is invigorating." He says exhibits prompt reflection on how Japan synthesizes past and present.
Kim loves visiting open-air museums like Nihon Minkaen because "wandering through these reconstructed dwellings and buildings transports you back centuries." She encourages budgeting time to visit at least one hands-on museum like Nihon Minkaen or cultural park/village to immerse yourself in Japan's cultural heritage.
Japan Bound: Top Tips for Navigating Your Upcoming Trip to the Land of the Rising Sun - Eat Your Way Through the Cities and Countryside
Japan’s diverse regional cuisines offer ample opportunities to tantalize your tastebuds. “Don’t just eat sushi and ramen when visiting Japan,” advises Chris. “Make sure to sample authentic local specialities as you travel between cities and rural areas.” He views eating as the best way to experience Japan’s unique food culture beyond staples like sushi.
“I love wandering through train stations trying all the different bento box options,” says Chris. These neatly compartmentalized portable meals provide an edible education in Japanese classics like crispy tonkatsu pork, flaky salmon sashimi or simmered daikon radish. Kim recommends keeping an eye out for ekiben bento boxes only available at specific train stations or regions. She fondly recalls the elaborate fried seafood and chicken ekiben filling her Shinkansen trays enroute from Tokyo to Kyoto.
In Osaka, Chris makes a beeline for Takoyaki Museum in Namba to sample piping hot, soccer ball-shaped octopus fritters drizzled in savory sauce and mayo. He then wanders nearby Kuromon Ichiba Market grazing on samples of fresh sashimi and handmade mochi rice cakes. To cap off the evening, Chris hits up a tiny yakitori joint tucked in Osaka’s neon-lit Dotombori area, filling up on smoky grilled chicken skewers and cold draft beer.
Kim says no trip to Hiroshima is complete without sampling the city’s namesake okonomiyaki, a cabbage-noodle pancake layered with pork and fish options. “There’s an entire neighborhood called Okonomimura lined with specialist okonomiyaki shops debating the best recipes,” she explains. After watching chefs theatrically prepare the meal, Kim loves digging into the savory pancake with tiny spatulas.
In Kyoto, Chris frequents Nishiki Market to graze on Japanese pickles like takuan and niboshi made fresh daily. He then sits down for a formal kaiseki ryori dinner to appreciate the refined flavors and plating of this intricate multi-course meal. “It was incredible seeing how the dishes reflected Kyoto’s seasonal ingredients,” Chris recalls.
Venturing into Japan’s countryside opens the door to hyper-regional flavors. Laura is eager to try Hida beef, a premium wagyu exclusive to Takayama. “The region’s lush mountain pastures yield supposed melt-in-your-mouth tender, beautifully marbled beef,” she explains. Laura plans to savor the beef as sukiyaki hot pot or steak at a specialist restaurant.
Torsten fondly remembers slurping steaming bowls of spicy miso ramen after long days skiing in Niseko. “Nothing satisfied more than those rich, umami pork and mushroom broths topped with crispy char siu pork, a soft boiled egg and fresh scallions,” he says. On a roadtrip through rural Hokkaido, Torsten stopped at farm stands to try ultrasweet corn and juicy melon he’d never find in Tokyo.
Japan Bound: Top Tips for Navigating Your Upcoming Trip to the Land of the Rising Sun - Sing Karaoke and Experience Japanese Nightlife
Karaoke is hugely popular in Japan, making belting out tunes a must-do nightlife experience. “You can’t leave Japan without singing your heart out at a karaoke joint,” insists Chris. These venues offer private party rooms for uninhibited crooning with friends.
Chris always books a karaoke session on his last night in Japan: “it’s the perfect finale singing cheesy pop songs I’d never dare to in public.” Most major cities have huge karaoke chains like Karaoke Kan with English song menus spanning decades. He suggests Big Echo locations which include costumes and props for full pop star fantasies.
For a classic experience, Chris heads to noisy karaoke joints under the train tracks in Tokyo’s Yurakucho district. “Cramming into tiny rooms there with new local friends until 5am remains one of my all-time favorite travel memories,” Chris fondly recalls.
Kim loves how karaoke empowers her shyest friends to come out of their shells. "Inhibitions disappear once microphones get passed around the room," she explains. Her pro tip is looking for food and drink packages at venues like Shidax in Tokyo, so your group can feast on sushi and knock back cocktails between songs.
Karaoke is also huge with students concludes Torsten: "On Friday nights in university neighborhoods like Shibuya, you'll see groups of friends waiting in long lines to get a room." He enjoys observing the fashion and energy of youth culture in areas packed with karaoke joints.
While karaoke is most popular in big cities, Laura is excited to visit a rural onsen ryokan offering in-room karaoke during her hot springs getaway. "I can't wait to sing in the open air baths after dark," she says.
Aside from karaoke, Japan's dazzling nightlife offers endless options for revelry. "Each neighborhood in Tokyo has its own vibe" says Torsten, who loves bar-hopping in atmospheric areas like Golden Gai's alleys packed with tiny watering holes. He suggests experiencing the city's array of themed nightlife offerings.
"My favorite memory was dancing all night at the retro 1980s club Nightsec in Shibuya, which was like stepping into a time warp" Torsten recalls. For live music, he often catches local punk bands at venue What the Dickens in trendy Ebisu. Hipster havens like Shimo-Kitazawa offer chic hidden bars serving craft cocktails along with hole-in-the-wall noodle joints.
Anime fans will love Café La Bohème in Osaka remarks Kim: "The anime-inspired cocktails, costume parties and animation screenings provide the perfect over-the-top experience." She enjoys people watching on the streets of Dotombori, where investors toast deals late into the night at yakitori stalls. In Kyoto, Kim relishes strolling narrow Pontocho Alley, slipping into secretive geisha teahouses.
Japan Bound: Top Tips for Navigating Your Upcoming Trip to the Land of the Rising Sun - See the Old and the New - From Kyoto to Tokyo
Japan's two most popular cities, Kyoto and Tokyo, wonderfully showcase the nation's ability to preserve ancient traditions while embracing modernity. "Visiting both cities gives travelers a richer understanding of Japan's complex relationship between past, present and future," says Torsten. He believes Kyoto represents the heart of old Japan, with Tokyo serving as a futuristic contrast. Fellow traveler Chris agrees you must visit each metropolis to fully grasp the culture.
Kyoto served as Japan's capital for over 1,000 years until 1869, making it the epicenter for centuries of religion, philosophy, arts and politics. Because it was spared from WWII bombing, Kyoto still contains around 2,000 temples and shrines along with old-world districts like Gion geisha quarters.
For Torsten, Kyoto's peaceful temples like Kinkaku-ji Golden Pavilion illuminate Japan's Zen Buddhist beliefs about harmony with nature that shape the culture. He says Kyoto's sublime gardens, like moss-covered Saiho-ji, influenced traditions like ikebana flower arranging still practiced today. Exploring Kyoto's historic neighborhoods full of machiya merchant homes and restaurants housed in traditional wooden buildings transports Torsten back to a timeless Japan free of modern architectural homogenization.
In contrast, Tokyo represents the ultra-modern face of Japan constantly pushing the boundaries of technology and fashion. Chris feels awed by Tokyo's neon-lit urban energy and non-stop pace. He loves people watching in youth fashion hot spots like Shibuya then recharging while gazing up at skyscrapers from tranquil Senso-ji Temple. For Chris, Tokyo's cosplay culture and robot restaurants embody Japan's sci-fi obsession. Yet, just steps away from flashing billboards and maid cafes exist old world craft shops and tranquil Shinto shrines, seamlessly blending new and old.
Fellow traveler Kim also appreciates how Tokyo juxtaposes ancient spiritual sites with unrestrained futurism. Within one day, she'll practice Zen meditation in historic Yanaka Cemetery before dressing up for robot cabaret. "Tokyo shows how Japan honors the past while boldly experimenting with every whimsical modern trend," Kim explains. For her, Tokyo represents Japan's contemporary side open to outside influences, from tongue-in-cheek Kawaii pop culture to gender-bending Harajuku fashion.