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There’s just something about Japan. It’s a country I’d always wanted to visit, a country I always get asked about since visiting and a country I seriously cannot wait to visit again.
It’s a slight obsession that probably doesn’t need much explaining. After all, how many other places have a such a unique character? Japan is a country of contrasts, where shyness meets eccentricity, where neutrally-shaded wardrobes meet the intoxicating lights of Tokyo, and where tradition meets the future. And it’s absolutely captivating.
If you haven’t realised by now, I fell well and truly head over heels for the East Asian country that gave us Pokemon, sushi and karaoke. And it seems I’m not the only one!
If you’ve caught the Japan bug, too, here’s how to make sure your first trip to Japan lives up to expectations.
Planning a trip to Japan
Order and organisation play a huge role in Japanese life and they’re going to be important if you want to make the most of your time there. Unlike other countries, you’ll need to plan a trip to Japan – even if you`re like me and usually prefer to get lost.
If you’re planning to venture beyond Tokyo (which you totally should!) you’ll probably also want to buy a Japan Rail pass. This handy ticket will you give unlimited travel of many of Japan’s rail lines, including the high-speed bullet train. It’s hard to get hold of once you arrive and will set you back a lot more once you’re already in Japan, so make sure you buy your Japan Rail pass before you go.
What to expect from your first time in Japan
When you first arrive in Japan, there’s a good chance it will all be a little overwhelming. But it might not be for the reasons you expected.
If you think Tokyo is going to be busy, bright and loud, get those images out of your head now. You’ll certainly suffer from sensory overload, but you’ll quickly realise how peaceful it is – almost eerily so. Even on the most crowded Tokyo streets, you won’t have to speak in anything louder than a whisper.
What will be overwhelming, however, is just how much there is to see in Japan. There’s a good chance you’ll go armed with a bucket list of things to do in Japan and it will triple in size as soon as you arrive. It will make you fall in love with both its culture, customs and people, and then it will break your heart when you realise you don’t have time to see more than a fraction of the magic.
If it’s your first time in Japan, don’t go expecting to see everything. Don’t get overwhelmed by all the possibilities that will pop up along the way. And don’t go expecting to never go back again. There’s a good chance you’ll be planning your second trip before you’ve even left.
When to visit Japan
If you’re wondering when to plan your trip to Japan for… well, it’s always a good time to visit Japan! But the best time to visit Japan for you will depend on where you want to go any what you want to see during your time there.
Even though there’s plenty to do during every season in Japan, some things will be off-limits at certain times of the year.
If you want to see those oh-so-cute Japanese snow monkeys bathing in hot springs, you’ll need to visit Jigokudani Monkey Park during the colder seasons. Come summertime, they have less reason to take a dip.
If you want to see the cherry blossoms transform the streets of Kyoto, you’ll need to go to Japan in early spring and hope you pick the right week.
If you want to get off the beaten tourist path and try diving in Japan, it’s best between spring and autumn.
And if you want to get the full onsen experience and visit the hot springs on a cold day, you’ll need to visit Japan in the colder months. Unless, of course, you head north to Hokkaido.
Related read: When to visit Hokkaido
How long to spend in Japan
As we already know, there’s a lot to do in Japan. I was there for an entire month and it felt like hardly anytime at all, so I’d say go for as long as possible. You’ll still find plenty of reasons to go back again!
7 days in Japan is enough to see some of the highlights. If you only have one week to explore Japan, it’s still well worth going but you’ll probably want to stay in just one place. Luckily, Tokyo is very well-connected to many of the other major attractions including Kyoto, Osaka and Fuji.
If you have two weeks in Japan or longer, I highly recommend to the lesser-visited Hokkaido. Hokkaido is the northernmost island in Japan and has a character of its own. The landscapes are dramatic, Siberian influence is prevalent and the ramen is by far the best we tasted in the whole of Japan.
Planning your Japan itinerary
As I mentioned, you’ll want to arrive with a plan if you hope to make the most of your time in Japan.
We started with a list of all the places we wanted to visit and then worked out what would be feasible. It was a great way to plan our month in Japan and meant we left satisfied with how we spent our time there.
If there’s one thing we learned while planning our trip to Japan, it was to not instantly write off anything that looks too far out of the way. Japan’s rail network is incredible and the Shinkansen trains (or bullet trains) make travelling long distances very doable. The only part of Japan that might be a little trickier to get to in a short time is the Yaeyama Islands.
If you only have a short time in Japan, you certainly don’t need to stick to one city but Tokyo makes a fantastic base. Tokyo is the central hub of the bullet train and lots of places are reachable within just a couple of hours. Check out these day trips from Tokyo for an idea of just how far you could go!
Related read: How to spend one week in Japan
Before you go: Japan travel checklist
You definitely want to be prepared for a trip to Japan, but try not to overthink it. These are the main things you need to think about before you leave.
Packing for Japan
Japanese dress tends to be fairly conservative. Think tailored pieces in neutral shades, layered in an almost Scandinavian way. And if that last sentence means absolutely nothing to you, go for grey, navy and cream pieces that fit loosely and layer easily.
The weather in Japan can vary greatly. We went from house-high snow to a summer heatwave in the space of two days when we travelled from Hokkaido to Kyoto in March. Make sure you pack something for every weather, including a rain jacket, an umbrella and sunglasses.
You can wear pretty much whatever you like in Japan – especially in the Harajuku district of Tokyo! – but the one thing you’ll want to think about is footwear. If the thought of wearing socks and sandals together makes you cringe, it’s probably best to leave the sandals at home. Pack the socks because you’ll need lots of them. It’s customary to remove your shoes when entering houses, restaurants and even some shops in Japan, so slip-on shoes (and clean, hole-free socks!) are your best bet.
Get to know the culture
Japan’s unique culture is one of its main draws, and you’ll certainly learn a lot about the Japanese approach to life while you’re there. But it also pays to learn a little before you go. Not only will you fit in and feel at home quicker, but you’ll also avoid any awkward or embarrassing situations.
I put together this post with 37 must-know tips for your first time in Japan at the end of my month there and while everything was still fresh in my mind.
Prepare the essentials
It goes without saying that you should make sure your passport is up to date, your suitcase fits the baggage restrictions and you have adequate travel insurance for your trip.
Aside from the usual checks, you should also make sure you order your Japan Rail pass at least a week before you go. The JR pass is available for 7 days, 14 days or 21 days. Which one you choose will depend on the length of your trip and how much you want to move around, so you’ll need to have at least a rough idea of your travel plans before you order.
If you’re going to be in Japan for 10-14 days, I would still recommend the 7 day JR pass. Unless you’re happy to be on the move for the entire time, it will give you a few days to explore Tokyo or one of the main cities at the beginning and/or end of your time to Japan.
Break the language barrier
Although I found Japan to be a very traveller-friendly country, the language barrier still exists. Even in large cities, not everybody understands English so it’s best to be prepared before you go. We got by using the Google Translate app, which wasn’t always reliable but nearly always did the job. If you want to make things easier – and don’t want to rely on your phone – I highly recommend buying a visual dictionary before you leave.
There are so many reasons why Japan might make it onto your travel bucket list. From the food and shrines, to the landscapes and onsen, I’m sure you Japan bucket list is far from empty and will probably only grow bigger. Embrace it, enjoy it and let yourself get swept away by this fascinating country.