Japan Travel Guide

japan travel guide

Japan is an amazing and really friendly country. With so many innovative ideas that affect modern world, Japan still remains an enigma, an unsolved riddle for many travelers. Very different from any other Asian country, Japan is the place that has both, tradition and cutting-edge technology. With over 3000 islands lying along the Pacific Ring of Fire, almost an entire country is about mountains, while cities occupy only flat lands and coastal plains. Japan offers magnificent temples, scenic and quaint gardens, delicious seafood, rich traditions and cultural heritage.

Each spring, social media users enthusiastically post images of blooming cherry trees as the Sakura zensen advances from the Okinawa Islands to the northernmost island of Hokkaido. Japan is a lovely and pleasant country to visit but it can be an expensive one as well. In this travel guide, I will reveal some tips that will make your stay in Japan more enjoyable.

Best Time To Visit Japan

Shoulder seasons, hence a period from September to November and April to May is the best time to visit Japan. Rain season takes place in early June – mid-July when the temperature is mostly hot and humid. Japan has numerous festivals throughout the year. Cherry blossom bloom in late March–early April, so you can expect crowds everywhere viewing the process and taking shots. Golden Week is the period for a number of Japanese holidays occurring in late April-early May. Obon festival is the time to honor the spirits of the deceased people. With amazing Bon-Odori dance, the festival takes place in mid-August.

Japan Location

Getting Around Japan

Tokyo has an extensive subway system with the color of the subway cars matching every exact line. Osaka, Yokohama, Fukuoka, and Kyoto also have subway systems. Metro one-way ticket costs between 1.5-3 USD (130-260 JPY) depending on the city. If you are planning to travel a lot by train, then JR Rail Pass is something that allows you to save money drastically. Get your JR Rail Pass before you hit the road since it is not applicable to subway system! While getting a ticket from a vending machine I felt somehow overwhelmed sometimes. Despite the fact that the final price is shown in Arabic numerals, I wasn’t always sure about my final destination, so I just chose the cheapest ticket and paid the excess at the end.

Buses are omnipresent in Japan. Expect to pay flat rate almost every time you ride a city bus. On the other hand, intercity buses have their rates based on the distance. When you enter the bus you get a paper ticket marked with a zone number. When you get off the bus you just show the ticket to a driver or put your ticket into the fare box. Non-Japanese speaking travelers may find using buses a bit confusing outside major cities. Since stops are often announced only in Japanese, it would be wise to know your destination in advance.

Accommodation in Japan

Finding a budget accommodation is a priority while in Japan. With everything rather expensive around here, several dollars saved on accommodation (well, saved on everything generally speaking) allows you to travel a bit further. Booking your accommodation in advance may be a wise idea because budget options are selling like hotcakes. Hostels are among the cheapest options in Japan. You can find hostels for around 2000-2200 JPY (19-21 USD) per night at the low end. Take advantage of staying in hostels to gain free Wi-Fi and self-catering facilities to cook your own food.

Budget hotels are great for spending a few nights before you find the more attractive option or hit the road for another location. I have found some great deals on agoda.com and booking.com that include standard amenities like towels, soap, and shampoo. They always have a private bathroom and also offer TV and a fridge. Expect to pay around 6000-8000 JPY (54-72 USD) for privacy. Capsule hotels offer small sleeping spaces that may look like a coffin for around 3000-5000 JPY (30-45 USD).

To feel the spirit of Japan consider staying at a ryokan. While expensive these traditional inns (B&B) can be found throughout Japan and usually set in Edo-period buildings. A harmonious combination of wood, glass, bamboo, paper screens, and tatami mats offers unique and memorable experience.

Food In Japan

You really can eat out on the cheap in Japan. Thanks to delicious and cheap noodle restaurants you can stay full longer. If you want to get some noodles and miso soup, stick to a budget and mid-range restaurants near train stations, in shopping malls and department stores. Many cheap places have traditional fabric curtains in the doorways, with the name of the eatery written on them in Japanese. Expect to spend around 5-9 USD per meal while eating there.

Food is the common motivator for residents to travel within Japan. You may notice that almost every town or city here has its own local specialities that make Japanese want to try it. Lunch deals are your best bet if you want to save extra money on food. A bunch of restaurants offer lunch deals at reduced prices. Fast food is generally more expensive than local food, expect to pay around 800 JPY (7 USD) for a combo meal. Fresh fruits and vegetables are also rather expensive, avoid them if you want to save.

Japan sakura

How To Do Japan On a Budget

Visit Japan during the off season

Such festivals as Obon, Golden Week and New Year’s make accommodation rates skyrocket. On the other hand, the rainy season in summer (with usually no rain in fact) provides much lower prices. By going off season you also get a chance of last minute deal, which can be more attractive than options a month before.

Utilize Your JR Pass

If your trip across Japan involves a lot of train rides, then JR Pass is something you should consider. It essentially reduces costs while using railroads and buses owned by JR, and allows to ride a shinkansen (bullet train) without breaking the bank.

Stick To Buses (And Overnight Buses)

Buses in Japan are reliable and cheap providing a convenient way of getting from A to B. Especially, if you’re traveling long distances, when overnight buses help you save on accommodation as well. With several plans for female travelers, buses are even more convenient. You can find buses from Tokyo-Osaka for 3500 JPY that is far cheaper than trains.

Find Yourself in Depachika

The department stores located in basements (nicknamed Depachika) offer a wide array of precooked and fresh food. These stores are great because some of them offer free food samples and sell foods by weight. Enjoy seasonal fruits while paying less money. The stores are often have direct access to subway stations and easily accessible from there. During lunchtime and in the evening department stores are particularly crowded.

Get Accommodation With Airbnb

Japan is home to many Airbnb hosts offering their homes for rent. If you’re not into staying at hostels and would like some privacy, Airbnb has to offer great options to achieve just that and save on accommodation as well. While prices differ from host to host, I recently came across a sweet and cozy separate room in Tokyo that sleeps two for just 25 USD per night! Be sure to book far in advance to get the best price.

Hit the 100 Yen Shops

The shops that offer almost any product for under 1 USD (100 JPY) are omnipresent in Japan. They are great for getting everyday items at low price. Snacks, bottled water, clothes and cosmetics – these are the reasons why locals, as well as travelers, love these shops. The only disadvantage is that they make you buy stuff you don’t really need (if you have money of course).

Take Advantage of Manga Kissa

These internet cafes initially were used primarily as libraries where folks could read comic books or play online games in private cubicles. Most of them operate 24/7 and offer some kind of accommodation. You won’t find beds in manga kissa, but with cozy chairs, blankets and enough room to stretch your legs, these are great to spend at least one night for around 1000 JPY (10 USD). Food is available from vending machines.

Don’t Miss Your Midnight Snack

To catch the cheapest food deals stick to supermarkets in the evening after 8pm or so. At this time most of them have to get rid of beef and chicken cutlets, sushi packs and bento lunch boxes to avoid spoiling at night. You can find discounts to be as high as 70 or 80% off the regular price.

Top Things To See and Places to Visit in Japan

Get Lost In Bustling Tokyo

Visiting Tokyo is truly a thrilling experience. I was dreaming about going to Tokyo since I was a kid and fell in love with this city and country as soon as I got there. An amazing mix of traditional and modern life, Tokyo is filled with anime, high-tech, sushi shops and beautiful gardens. This city is always busy, just take a look at Shibuya crossing during peak hours. With so many things to do here, it is better to explore Tokyo at a slow pace with eyes wide open.

Enjoy Flowers in Hitachi Seaside Park

The park is mostly about picturesque landscape, seasonal flowers and blue nemophila flowers that bloom here from April to May. Hitachi Seaside Park is the off-the-beaten-track place and usually overlooked in favor of the Three Great Gardens of Japan. Located two hours away from Tokyo by train in the seaside town of Hitachinaka, the park has its main attraction – Miharashi Hill covered with different flowers, while the most popular are Baby Blue Eyes flowers. Take a spin on the Ferris wheel or spend some time in the Water Plaza, which is popular during the hot summer months.

Admire the Japanese Gardens in Kyoto

The former Imperial capital city has 17 UNESCO sites and is one of the most popular destinations in Japan for travelers from around the world. And for good reason. Kyoto is the embodiment of Japan’s soul. Centuries-old temples, ryokans, tranquil Zen gardens and teahouses. Seeing all these sites may require a lot of time, but no matter what sites you’ll visit you can expect them maintained in the authentic tradition of the city.

Feed Deer In Nara

The city of Nara deserves at least one entire day to spend here. Board the train in Osaka or Kyoto to reach Nara in less than one hour. Nara is home to some of Japan’s oldest shrines and temples, which are embraced by the Nara Park and fascinating Japanese architecture. Stroll the alleyways of the Nara Park to see grazing sika deer and feed them with crackers. If you find yourself here be sure to visit the Kasuga Taisha shrine, Todai-ji and Kofuku-Ji temples.

Stroll the Bamboo Alleyways in Arashiyama

When I visited Kyoto, Arashiyama Bamboo Forest was among the places I strived to visit. Once you get into the surreal bamboo forest, makes you feel like taking a step back in time. This peaceful place is one of the top destinations in Kyoto so it is usually packed with tourists on weekends. However, the further you go up towards the mountain, the fewer people stay on the path. The bamboo forest is easily accessible from the main street of Arashiyama, not far from Tenryu-ji Temple entrance.

Enjoy a Bird’s Eye View of Yokohama

While Yokohama architecture may reminiscent of ultramodern Tokyo, the city hosts numerous temples and shrines with history dating back hundreds of years. Rivaling Japan’s capital city, Nagoya and Osaka, Yokohama has its own business district filled with famous international corporations. Minato Mirai 21 futuristic looking area attracts travelers with an observation deck on top of Landmark Tower, parks dotted between skyscrapers and the large Ferris wheel. Don’t skip the chance to stroll through Chinatown, explore the Shinyokohama Ramen Museum and the Yokohama Port area.

Walk Through a Tunnel of Torii Gates

Fushimi Inari Taisha may seem to be an endless tunnel of torii gates leading up the sacred Mount Inari. As you start climbing up, the tunnel is packed with tourists but the further you go the more opportunities you get to take awesome photos without anyone else in the frame. For me, it was an unbeatable climbing experience so far. The tunnel looks surreal in spots where the gates have high density that even the sunlight has a hard time getting through. The head shrine of Inari is reachable from JR Inari Station.

Head To Kawagoe

The town of Kawagoe is one of the best getaway destinations in Japan to feel the spirit of Edo period. Located half an hour away from Tokyo, Kawagoe has its main street lined with clay walled warehouse buildings that gives us some clear image of how Kawagoe looked like several centuries ago. Aside from architecture and culture, Kawagoe houses a number of traditional candy shops and restaurants serving eel dishes. If you go here for a weekend, be sure to see the Bell Tower situated near Kurazukuri street and Kita-in Buddhist Temple.

Hike the Nakasendo Trail

The trail was very important during the Edo period. Since it was providing connection between Kyoto and Tokyo, nowadays a part of it was redeveloped. There are a few stretches that preserved their original form and allow to enjoy tranquil scenery of traditional Japan. The most famous section of the Nakasendo way lies in the Kiso Valley, between the towns of Tsumago and Magome with warning bells placed along the path to scare off bears. Hiking Nakasendo is like an antidote to the urban sprawl of Tokyo, so you can expect to spend around 3-4 hours for this small section with picturesque forests, restored paving, monkeys and spectacular views of waterfalls along the way.

Explore Osaka

Going on an eating spree in Osaka is quite easy! Osaka is a food destiantion, which makes the city a paradise for Japanese food lovers. While food culture in Osaka is primarily about seafood, it also boasts some of the Japan’s nicest grilled beef. Visit Shinsekai or Kitashinchi districts to enjoy grilled octopus, shredded cabbage with squid or prawns, meat and vegetables on the cheap. Apart from food there is a number of interesting temples and sites, such as Osaka Castle, Tennoji Park, Shitenno-ji temple and Tempozan ferris wheel.

Pay Tribute To Victims in Hiroshima

The city of Hiroshima will be associated with the nuclear bomb attack for a very long time, I think. While the city is completely safe to visit today, there is still a prejudice that high radiation levels can cause harm to visitors. That is not true. The city became livable 27 days after the explosion, when the tropical storm washed the dangerous radioactive dust out of the air. Quite an underrated destination in Japan, Hiroshima is famous for its great restaurants, beautiful parks and various museums.

Visit Okinawa

A cluster of Okinawa islands offers a chance to enjoy the earliest cherry blossom blooming in Japan. Because of its geographic location, Okinawa is among the country’s most popular getaway destinations. Relax on beautiful sandy beaches, swim in perfect turquoise water and enjoy numerous water activities. With so many islands around here, you can choose your own island experience in Okinawa. Apart from beach activities Okinawa boasts a rich culture and heritage. Strongly influenced by China, the island has to offer a bit different experience than mainland Japan.

Attend Fuji Shibazakura Festival

Japan’s spring season offers a chance to enjoy not only sakura and tulip blooming, but also shibazakura blooming (pink moss). Very impressive views of flower carpets with neat alleys among them are supplemented by magnificent Mount Fuji in the backdrop on clear days. The venue is about three kilometers south of Lake Motosuko, in the Fuji Five Lakes district. Visit Shibazakura Festival in the morning if you want mind-blowing photos with great visibility.

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