Planning a Trip to Japan for the First Time: The Ultimate Travel Guide

A trip to Japan cannot be improvised, especially when it comes to your first ever trip. Because the destination is so far and often expensive, planning a trip to Japan for the first time is essential and should not be a last-minute exercise. Preparing your itinerary, booking a reasonably cheap flight and accommodation but most importantly agreeing to a budget is not always easy to do.

Rural town - planning a trip to Japan for the first time

On my first trip to Japan, although I spent lots of time creating “the perfect itinerary”, there were still some things I hasn’t expected. So, for my second trip, since I had the first-hand experience, I avoided the mistakes I made on my first trip and put together a more organised itinerary which turned out to be fantastic.   

Preparing your first-time trip to Japan

When planning your trip to Japan for the first time, it can be overwhelming to know where to start. Japan is a country with a varied landscape and countless cities/towns waiting to be discovered. During my first trip, I just went along and explored the main touristy cities. However, during the planning of my second trip, I thought whether I wanted to discover the newest “in” destinations like Kanazawa or travel in a lesser known area.

When to travel to Japan

When it comes to choosing the right time to visit Japan, you have obviously several choices. Japan has distinctive seasons and each one has its advantages and disadvantages.

  • Spring is the most popular time to travel to Japan because it is associated with the cherry blossoms which offer a beautiful spectacle. Hanami (meaning cherry blossom viewing) is a popular activity for Japanese who flock parks to have parties (families, friends and colleagues) to see the blooming flowers. This means that this period is the busiest and most expensive since the Japanese people also take their holidays then.  
  • Summer in Japan is hot and humid. The season is when the country offers much of its “matsuri” festivals and cultural events (mostly in july/August). June is a little wet but flight fares are cheap.
Kinugawa river surrounded by trees - planning a trip to Japan for the first time
  • Autumn is the second most popular time to visit Japan thanks to “koyo & Momiji” (autumn-coloured foliage). The changing of the leaves is a breathtaking sight to see. The weather is pleasant and temperatures mild. I took my second trip to Japan in November and spent most days with a light jacket. Bonus: flight fares were the cheapest!
  • Winter is said to be cold but beautiful (according to my Japanese friends). I hope to return and visit the Sapporo Snow Festival one day!

Choosing the right time will depend on what you would like to do, see or your budget. In any case, no matter the season, the first trip to Japan will be a great experience.

Getting around in Japan

JR Rail Pass or not?

JR Pass - planning a trip to Japan for the first time

Deciding whether to get the JR Rail Pass all depends on your travel arrangements and frequency. It depends not only on the amount of travelling you are planning to do but also the places you are planning on visiting. JR Rail Pass is an excellent pass for visitors travelling to longer distances; for example from Tokyo to Hiroshima via Kyoto. If you are going only in and around Tokyo, then it will not be cost effective. In any case, please bear in mind that you should purchase the JR Rail Pass before arriving in Japan.

Hyperdia

When in Japan you will definitely have to take the train or metro at some point. The train and metro networks are so extensive and complex that they can appear like a labyrinth. Trying to understand them when planning your journey can be difficult. This is where Hyperdia comes in. It is a great tool for finding the best transport route and make your trip a little more stress-free. It provides you with the best route options, fares information, and platform details.

Tobu Revaty Express - planning a trip to Japan for the first time
Revaty train

Metro

The metro system is essential for getting around, specially in Tokyo. What impressed me at first was the efficiency of the transport. For someone who grew up in Paris and now live in London, I know how unreliable the transport can be. Not in Japan through, all the metro lines are super clean and the trains are on time. Although convenient, the metro system can be very intimidating but it remains an experience to have.

Tips: Some Tokyo stations have dedicated staff to help tourists to get to their destinations. They can assist with anything from directions to sightseeing.

The bus is the most convenient means of transportation in smaller cities. Similar to trains and metro,buses in Japan are efficient and always on time. Tickets can be bought on the bus or via Passmo/Suica cards.  Entry is at the back of the bus and exit at the front.

Coaches are also a good option to travel within Japan cheaply. For example, a trip from Tokyo to Kyoto costs around 5,000 Yen.

Taxi

Even though taking the tube is part of the Japanese experience as a tourist, sometimes it’s just easier to take the taxi. They have a reputation for being expensive, but sometimes they are more convenient to use for example when you have too much luggage and need to get from the tube station to your accommodation, or when you miss the last public transport. Rates is by the meter and most taxis (in Tokyo)  have a starting price of 730 Yen for the first 2 km. Taxis in Japan may be expensive but I believe the service is great – at least I didn’t feel cheated like I have been countless times in Europe!

Safety in Japan

Japan is one of the safest country in the world but like any country, crime do happen. You should always stay aware of your surroundings. For example, the Tokyo metro has “Women Only” carriages during rush hours to combat groping on crowded trains.

Women Only carriage sign -  planning a trip to Japan for the first time

Having said that, Japanese people are honest and respectful, making Japan a great destination for female travelers. I have seen several times people reserving their seats in restaurants by leaving their bags in the seats. This is definitely something that you can’t do in Europe.

In terms of disasters, Japan is extremely prepared and they have measures in place in case of earthquakes. Apps like Japan Official Travel App has a notification function.

What budget to consider

The budget is often the reason most people abandon travelling to Japan. It costs on average £1,500 to £2,000 per person including the return fare. This is the average price I paid for each of my trips. However the cost may vary depending on the period of departure, length of stay, type of accommodation, travels within Japan and activities. Cost may vary if you  are travelling with someone as some costs can be halved. I often hear people say that Japan is expensive but I don’t think it is more expensive than Paris or London for example. As every destination, you can make the trip more affordable by planning wisely.

Looking at flight a good 6 months in advance helps. If you are not too bothered with a stopover, you might save a good £100. For example, for my June trip, I paid £530 with Qatar Airways (stop at Doha) and my trip in November was £440 with Air France and a stop in Paris. Food is more affordable and you can eat well for less than £15 with a mixture of restaurant and convenience store food.

Plane flying over Ehime - planning a trip to Japan for the first time
Flying over Matsuyama

Transport

Transport in Japan is excellent but very expensive. A ride on the Shinkansen from Tokyo to Kyoto can cost as little as 13,080 Yen. A single journey on the metro will cost between 100 to 250 Yen. Luckily to appeal tourists, most cities offer day passes which gives you a 24 hours unlimited ride. Tokyo offers one for 800 Yen.

Book your flight – Skyscanner and Momondo are my favourite tools to find cheap flights.

Accommodation

Japan offers a wide variety of accommodation to choose from. From guesthouse where you can experience living with a Japanese family, western style hotels to hostels and ryokan or Japanese style ins. The search for accommodation is the second most important element of your trip planning after the flight booking. Therefore, shouldn’t be left to the last minute. Contrary to Europe where you can walk in a hotel and book a room. However, this practice is to be avoided in Japan. In Japanese culture, it is frowned upon not being able to respond favourably, therefore, hotel staff will feel bad if they cannot offer a room to you on the spot. You will need to book way in advance, especially during the busy period.

Capsule hotel - planning a trip to Japan for the first time
MyCube Capsule hotel

If you are tight on money, look out for hostels. For a different and unique experience try a capsule hotel (around 2,000 to 5,000 Yen)  or a stay in a ryokan or temple lodging if you prefer a Japanese style accommodation. Ryokans are quite pricey especially in famous onsen locations. Budget-friendly business hotels are good options but rooms can be sometimes very small. I stayed in one in Kyoto for 3,500 Yen per night, which was a bargain. The good part is that all accommodations offer amenities which includes toiletries, pyjamas, slippers and WI-FI.

During my visits, I have had the chance to try out all accommodations types: hostel, capsule hotel, budget hotel, minshuku (bed&breakfast), luxury hotel and staying at my Japanese friends’ houses.

For your hotel/hostels and ryokan bookings, use Booking.com.

Food

Unlike transport, food is relatively cheap in Japan. For the second country with the most Michelin stars restaurants, you can find lots of inexpensive to reasonably priced restaurants. You can get a good meal for 500 Yen to 2,000 Yen. Some of the best options for travellers on a budget are of course restaurants that serve dishes like curry rice, donburi  or noodles (soba, ramen or udon). The food there is low-priced, delicious and filling. Conveyor belt sushi restaurants and standing restaurants are often cheap too. These type of restaurants can be found in or near big train stations, business districts or food court in a shopping mall.

Menu set - planning a trip to Japan for the first time

Lunchtime is the perfect moment to have a full meal as most restaurants offer set menus (teishoku) at around 1,000 to 1,500 Yen. Convenience stores (7-Eleven, Lawson, FamilyMart) are also a good place to find cheap food. You can get anything from sushi, lunch boxes, sandwiches, onigiri (rice balls), fried chicken, noodles etc…I have to say, I became quite addicted to salmon onigiri and FamilyMart’s fried chicken!

Activities

Travelling to Japan is all about experiencing the country’s uniqueness. So, as well as discovering new cities, you consider adding a few experiences in your itinerary to make your trip more memorable. As enjoyable as they are not all of the attractions are free. Actually, most temples, gardens and museums charge  an entry fee. Some activities to consider: eat sushi in Tsukiji fish market, people watch in Shibuya crossing, attend a tea ceremony,

Yet, there are a variety of discounts that can decrease your sightseeing expenses a little bit.

See below some free sightseeing you can do during whilst visiting the following cities.

  • Tokyo – Sensoji Temple, Meiji Shrine, Tokyo Government Building Observation Deck, Toyosu Fish Market (new Tsukiji), Imperial Palace and exploring Tokyo’s neighbourhood (Ginza, Shibuya, Harajuku etc…)
  • Kyoto – Kyoto Imperial Palace, Fushimi Inari Shrine, Nishiki Market, wandering in the Philosopher’s Path and around Gion.
  • Nara – Nara Park, Yoshikien and Naramachi.
  • Yokohama – Minato Mirai, Chinatown, Kirin Beer Village,  Osanbashi Pier and Yamashita Park.
  • Hiroshima – Hiroshima Peace Park, Daishoin Temple and Miyajima.
  • Kamakura – Tsurugaoka Hachimangu and walking the hiking trails.
  • Hakone – Hakone Shrin

Where to go to Japan for the first time? – Travel itinerary

There are so many beautiful towns in Japanese that it will be impossible to cover even 1% on your first trip there. The country is full of contrasts, even the big cities are unlike one another. My recommendations to experience some of the best things is to spend a full two weeks or three if you can. I would like to suggest 2 itineraries for your Japan trip.

Itinerary 1 – Unmissable Japan

Tokyo – Hakone – Kyoto – Osaka – Kobe – Nara

Asakusa Sensoji temple - planning a trip to Japan for the first time
Asakusa
Osaka Dotonbori - planning a trip to Japan for the first time
Osaka Dotonbori
  • Tokyo – This metropolis is the capital of modernity. A mandatory stop in your trip to Japan, Tokyo seems to contain a bit of everything you can experience in Japan: diverse neighbourhoods, an array of temple and shrines, mouth-watering foods, crazy experiences. No other city can offer you traditional and modern as Tokyo does.
  • Hakone – Who hasn’t come across “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by the woodblock printer Hokusai? For a chance to see the famous Mount-Fuji, try our an onsen or see spectacular scenery, head to Hakone.  The closeness with Tokyo means that it be done as a day trip.
  • Kyoto – The ancient capital of Japan is a symbol of the country. Geisha, zen gardens, Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines with their red gates are images that categorise/represents Japan for most people. As well as Tokyo, it should be in every travellers’ itinerary.
  • Osaka – Foodie capital of Kansai and Japan in general, Osaka is a colourful and lively city. Whether you are looking to experience or cultural, Osaka offers something for all including one of the most beautiful castle.
  • Nara – Nara is a small city with a rich cultural heritage, making it an essential tourist stop in Japan.
  • Kobe – An important port city and home to the famous marbled wagyu beef.
  • Hiroshima – Visiting the Peace Memorial Park Hiroshima is an important step to understand the atrocities of the atomic bombing. Finish your tour with a visit to the island of Miyajima.
Google map of Japan trip itinerary - planning a trip to Japan for the first time

Itinerary 2 – Off the beaten track Japan

Tokyo – Yokohama – Nikko – Kawagoe – Kamakura – Ehime prefecture

Daibutsu, the Great Buddha of Kamakura - Kamakura day trip
Kamakura’s Great Buddha
  • Tokyo – All Japan trips should included a full Tokyo itinerary. There are so many things to do there like watching a sumo tournament.
  • Yokohama – The second populous city after Tokyo, this port city is a superb choice for a day trip from Tokyo. Explore Minato Mirai, Sankeien Garden and get closer to China with a visit to Chinatown.
  • Coasts of Kanagawa – Enoshima and Kamakura are two beautiful towns located on the Shōnan coast of Japan’s Kanagawa Prefecture. At less than an hour from Tokyo, Enoshima is the perfect destination for a day trip away from the hustle and bustle of the capital.
  • Nikko – Town at the entrance to Nikko National Park, site of the beautiful Toshugu shrine.  
  • Kawagoe – Known as Little Edo, Kawagoe is only 30 minutes away from Tokyo so it’s a favorable option for a day trip. Its architecture which has remained the same takes visitors back in the Edo period.  
  • Matsuyama is the largest city in Ehime prefecture (pure Japanese countryside) and home to Dogo Onsen, Japan’s oldest onsen.
Dogo Onsen - planning a trip to Japan for the first time
Gogo Onsen

Good to know before you go

  • Luggage – Japanese trains don’t always have big compartments for bulky items of luggage. Luckily, there are lots of companies that offer luggage delivery services (takuhaibin) allowing you to travel hands-free.
  • Electricity – The supply in Japan is 100 volts unlike the rest of the world (110-120V in North America or 230V in Europe) Check out her for Amazon’s travel adaptors.
  • Using mobile phones & Internet – Having access to the internet while in Japan it is essential to keep in touch with family or social media. However, using your phone can be costly, especially while using data. Thankfully, there are several options to get continuous access to complimentary WiFi. Most hotels, airports, big stations, convenience stores and cafes have free WiFi. However, for a more reliable service on the go, I recommend renting a Pocket WiFi from Japan Wireless. I used them during my last trip and have no complaint whatsoever. Their coverage was great. You can get a 1,000 Yen discount by using this offer code – JWSECRETMOONA.
  • Tipping – There is no tipping in Japan, you pay what’s on the receipt. Taxis, hotel staff, and guides will not accept tips either. On my last trip, since I booked a guide in Tokyo, I brought her a pack of assorted English teas as a gift. It was well received! One occasion when it is appropriate to tip is when you stay in a luxury ryokan. My friend left an envelope containing 1,000 Yen for the person who served our meals and prepared our futons.

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Here you have it – a list of all the things you should consider while planning your trip to Japan for the first time.

Happy travel!

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Hi there! I'm Mayi. Welcome to my blog SecretMoona! I hope to share with you the hidden secret of places I visit.

8 thoughts on “Planning a Trip to Japan for the First Time: The Ultimate Travel Guide

  1. This is the most thorough Japan guide I have read to date. A-mazing! My son’s been bugging me forever to visit Japan. I’m saving this guide for when we finally go. Hopefully soon!

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