An Essential Guide for Planning a Trip to Japan
Plus What to do and where to go in Japan
We visited Japan as part of our trip around the world without flying. On this page, I want to share my tips for planning a trip to Japan. Firstly, I’ll tell you a bit about our experience and hopefully, point you in the right direction to plan your own trip.
For me, Japan is one of those exotic destinations which seems a very long way away. Of course, it is really. It took us several weeks to get there although obviously you can get there much quicker than we did. As well as travelling overland in Japan by train, we also started our cruise across the Pacific Ocean here. It’s a truly amazing place with some unique sights to see. If it’s not already on your bucket list then
Several cruise lines have cruises which either start or call into Japan. Because Japan is actually a collection of islands, it’s the ideal destination for a cruise. So, whether you’re arriving by plane, ferry or on a cruise ship, you’ll find useful tips here for planning a trip to Japan. I’ll talk about pre-planning items like visas and also getting there. Then move on to how to get around, where to go and what to see.
Planning a Trip to Japan
Essential Tips for Planning a Trip to Japan
Do you need a visa to visit Japan?
Arriving by air
Arriving by sea
Travelling by Train in Japan
Japanese Rail Pass
Standard to Green Class?
Driving in Japan
Where to go in Japan
Tokyo to Yokohama Cruise Terminal
Do you need a visa?
Firstly, the good news. If you’re a British Citizen then all you need to visit Japan for up to 90 days is a valid passport. You may need to show a return ticket or proof of onward travel when you arrive. However, if you hold any other form of British passport then you should check before you travel as sometimes different rules apply.
Of course, your passport needs to be valid for the length of your stay. Moreover, this information applies to tourist visits only. Obviously, you can’t just turn up and work in Japan without the appropriate visa. Also, be aware that you may need a visa if you have a criminal conviction so do check.
I know a lot of my readers are from the United States and, more good news, you can also travel to Japan for up to 90 days without a visa.
Before you head off please make sure that you have adequate travel insurance. However tempting it might be to save a few pounds now, you’ll regret it later if you have any issues. We travel light and carry very little of value but that doesn’t mean we don’t need insurance. Mainly I buy insurance for the medical cover but it is also useful if you have delays or lose your luggage.
As you would expect, healthcare in Japan is excellent so you’ll be well taken care of if you have a medical issue while travelling. However, it is not cheap. So having good insurance is, in my opinion, essential.
In fact, Travel insurance doesn’t have to be expensive. If you are in the UK, you can get a good policy through the Post Office at very reasonable prices. In the USA, Axa Travel Insurance is a good choice.
You can’t beat a good guidebook when travelling. I like to carry a few on my kindle so I can refer to them easily wherever I am. I find it particularly handy when things don’t go quite according to plan and we need to find something else to do. We can just flick through the guidebook and find nearby attractions. Another handy use for a guidebook is to show to people if your language skills fail you. I’ve shown a photo of an attraction in a guide book to many taxi drivers. As well as being able to show them a photo you’ll find that places usually have their names written in the local language and also a phone number. These are some of my favourite guidebooks and they’re all available as ebooks.
Japan is a series of islands and it’s fairly isolated in relation to even its closest neighbours so to get there, you need to either fly or take a ship or ferry.
Arriving by Air
You can arrive in Japan at any of its four international airports: Narita, Haneda, Kansai and Chubu.
Many international visitors from the UK and USA will arrive in Japan at Narita airport near Tokyo. Narita is Japan’s largest airport and most of the major airlines fly here.
From Narita Airport you can easily travel to central Tokyo by train. Just take either the Narita Express or the Skyliner. Skyliner takes approximately 45 minutes and the Narita Express takes slightly longer at around 60 minutes. Both are comfortable, efficient ways to get into the city centre and you’ll also find plenty of space for your luggage.
If you prefer to travel by road then there is an airport express bus. It takes slightly longer than the train but it does drop off at several downtown hotels so if you’re staying in one you may like this option.
Like many large cities, Tokyo has more than one airport. Also called Big Bird, Haneda airport is just south of the city. You’re more likely to fly in and out of Haneda if you’re flying internally within Japan as it is the domestic terminal.
To reach Haneda from central Tokyo you can take the monorail which takes about 25 minutes. There is also a train service from one of the private operators, the Keihin-kyuko(Keikyu) Line will get you to to the airport in around 20 minutes.
Another major Japanese airport is Kansai airport which is located just south of Osaka. You could opt to fly in here if you are starting your trip in Osaka or Kyoto or planning to head further south.
Once again, you can travel between the airport and the city centre by either bus or train. I tend to opt for train transfers as it’s easier to know where to get off. However, the best choice often depends on how close your hotel is to the stops. It takes about 40-50 minutes to get from Kansai into Osaka.
Chubu Centrair International Airport
Finally, there is Chubu airport, near Nagoya. That’s actually not that far from the other airports so they’re all in the same area of Japan really. It’s the obvious choice if you are starting your trip in Nagoya but it’s good transport links make it easy to travel within Japan.
Here, the train is your best bet to get into the city centre. Look for the limited express train which will get you there in under an hour.
Arriving by Sea
We arrived in Japan at the port of Osaka on the ferry from Shanghai. This is one of Japan’s main ports and the gateway to the country from China. The journey from Shanghai to Osaka by ferry takes 2 nights. There is also a service to the port of Kobe from Shanghai.
Ferries also arrive in Japan from Busan in South Korea at Fukuoka (Hakata) and Shimonoseki ports. If you take the fast jetfoil service the journey takes less than 3 hours. Or travel overnight on the conventional ferry.
Additionally, you can reach Japan by ferry from Russia. There is a weekly ferry from Vladivostok in Eastern Russia to Sakaiminatoin Japan. An ideal continuation of the Trans-Siberian journey.
Travelling by Train
In the short video above you can see one of the famous Japanese bullet trains or Shinkansen. There are actually lots of different types but they all have one thing in common, they’re fast, efficient and comfortable. This means that travelling by train is the perfect way to get around Japan. Just sit back, relax and watch the scenery flash by.
To plan your train journeys you can use www.hyperdia.com. This will tell you the times and prices of all the trains. You will see that most of Japan’s trains are run by Japanese Railways (JR) although there are also some private rail lines. Actually, some of the JR lines are privatised also but it’s simpler to just think of them as JR lines. This is only really an issue if you choose to travel on the rail pass as it is only valid on JR lines.
Types of Train
Although most of us will associate Japan with the bullet train, they do have an extensive network of normal trains too. While the bullet train is a great option for travelling between major stations, you’ll probably want to take one of the classic lines during your trip. You’ll find local, rapid, express and limited express trains on the timetable. In fact, these will probably be more like the trains you’re used to. Probably more punctual though.
Using these trains will enable you to get to smaller stations and explore more of the country. Even within larger cities, you’ll find JR lines running alongside the metro lines so trains are always a great way to get around in Japan.
Japanese Rail Pass
We used the Japan Rail Pass for our trip. You need to work out if it is cost-effective for you but if you are taking more than one bullet train trip then it likely is. If you use the pass then you cannot take Nozomi or Mizuho bullet trains or non-JR lines. Well, you can but you have to pay extra! It’s not a big deal as there are plenty of JR trains to choose from.
You can buy your Japan Rail Pass online before you go. Buy either a 7, 14 or 21-day pass depending on how long you will be using the trains. We had the 14-day pass and make good use of it as you will see if you read our Japan trip reports. The days run consecutively so it makes sense to plan your itinerary to get the most effective use of the pass.
You can see the costs for the pass in the table below. As can be seen, the pass is not cheap but as I have said, it can be very good value for money. Japanese train travel is very efficient but it can be expensive. If you’re making several train trips then you’ll find that these prices start to look very attractive.
Japan Rail Pass Costs
7 days: £210
14 days: £335
21 days: £428
7 days: £281
14 days: £454
21 days: £591
What does the Rail pass cover?
So, I’ve convinced you that the rail pass can be good value for money. But what does it actually cover? Basically, it covers all trains that run on JR lines. Even the newly privatised ones. If it says JR then you’re good. It includes most of the Shinkansen or bullet trains. Only two are excluded, Nozomi or Mizuho shinkansen trains. Don’t worry though. There are plenty of alternatives. The easiest way to make sure your train is included is when you search on www.hyperdia.com check the boxes to exclude Nozomi, Mizuho and private lines. Then your search will only return trains included in the pass. It’s really easy and you’ll find so many trains all over Japan that you can use.
Standard or Green Class?
I’m sure you’ve noticed that there are two classes of Japan Rail Pass, Standard and Green. Basically, green is first class. We paid the extra for first-class and it is a very comfortable way to travel. However, I had a peek in 2nd class (standard) too and it looked pretty good. I’m not sure I’d bother to pay the extra next time. In fact, the only real advantage to the green class is the seat layout. Seats are 2-2 layout rather than 2-3 so if you’re travelling as a couple this can make sense. Also, we were travelling with luggage so though the extra space would be useful. If you’re on a tight budget then travel standard class, you’ll be fine.
On many trains, if you have your rail pass you just hop on and go. This makes it very flexible indeed. However, on some trains, mainly the bullet trains, you can reserve a seat. Even then you often don’t have to as they will often have an unreserved carriage. Of course, if you want to be sure of a seat it makes sense to reserve one if you can. So, just take your pass to the information or reservations desk and ask them to make a seat reservation for you. It’s free of charge and then you know you’ll have a seat for your journey.
Driving In Japan
We were able to explore the places we wanted to visit in Japan using the trains. However, you might find you’re heading to more rural parts of the country or just prefer to drive. So, here I’m going to provide an overview of driving in Japan in case it forms part of your trip planning.
International Driving Permit
Firstly, you will need an International Driving Permit to drive in Japan if you are from the UK or USA. So put that at the top of your list of things to do. You need to get one before you leave your home country.
Fortunately, for those of us from the UK, in Japan, they drive on the left. That’s one less thing to worry about. As you would expect, drivers in Japan are generally good mannered and considerate. However, you can’t assume that means that every single person on the road will drive exceptionally at all times so you do still need to be careful. Familiarise yourself with the rules of the road before you arrive.
Driving in cities
Unless you’re a very confident driver you’ll probably want to avoid driving in the big cities. Traffic levels are high and road networks are often confusing. Although signs are in English as well as Japanese it can be quite disorientating when you look at the sign as the Japanese symbols are on top and much larger. My advice is to use public transport in the cities and save driving for more rural locations.
If you are visiting Japan as a tourist then you are unlikely to want to purchase a car and it’s not somewhere you can take your own. So you will need to rent one. There is an extensive network of car rental companies across Japan so there is plenty of choices. Toyota, Nippon, Times, Nissan and Erekin are some of the bigger chains. You’ll also come across smaller independent car hire firms. I use https://www.skyscanner.net/ to find the best deals.
As always when renting a vehicle, check what is included and most importantly, what is not. We always take out a separate insurance waiver policy to make sure we are covered for any damage excess, tyres, windscreens etc which often not included in standard rental agreements. To find the best price I use moneymaxim – it’s basically an excess search site. Put in your requirements and they’ll give you the best policy.
What of my top reasons for travelling is to experience different cultures and so it’s important to me that I try to be sensitive to those cultures. When I visit a country I try to find out a few tips on how to behave and especially how to be seen as polite. Japanese people are incredibly polite and they will make allowances for you if you get it wrong but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Here are a few things that will help make your trip more successful.
I always think it’s a good idea to learn a few words of the language before you travel to another country. Japanese isn’t an easy language to learn but I did try to learn a few basics.
Of course, Japanese uses a completely different script and alphabet to English and I don’t think it’s really practical to try to learn it for a short visit. So, learning to read Japanese wasn’t really an option. You don’t need to worry about this too much though. We found enough signage in English to get by and most people spoke English also. When all else fails, sign language works wonders.
However, it’s the polite thing to do to at least try to speak a few words of the language. Here are a few basics that will show you’ve at least made an effort.
Thank you: Arigato
Everywhere you go in Japan you will see people bowing to one another. It’s a huge part of Japanese etiquette and it’s worth learning a little bit about this tradition as you are planning your trip to Japan.
The Japanese bow in many different situations, not just when they are greeting each other. For instance, to express thanks or sympathy, to say goodbye or to say sorry. This explains why you see it so often. We saw train stewards bow as they entered each carriage as a mark of respect to the passengers.
The deeper you bow the more respect you show. So a brief nod of the head is more casual than a deep bow from the waist. Because the culture and practice of bowing is quite complicated most Japanese won’t expect tourists to fully understand all the nuances of it. However, to show that you appreciate their culture and want to try to fit in you should at least try. They will appreciate it.
My tip is to take your cue from the person in front of you. If they just give a casual nod of the head then return it. If they bow from the waist at a slight incline then you can mirror this. For example, in shops, you will often receive a brief bow when paying. It’s polite to return this.
Don’t overdo it and make it look as though you are mocking them. Bowing too deeply in a casual situation could be seen as impolite if it is deemed insincere. But do try as it’s such an integral part of Japanese culture.
Something worth being aware of before you travel to Japan is what to expect in a hotel. I’m sure you already know that Japan is famous for its capsule hotels. Tiny cubicles where you can sleep at a reasonable price but with very little space. They’re a great idea for short stays and for those on a budget but most of us are looking for something a bit bigger for our stay.
However, you should be aware that even luxury hotels in Japan have quite small rooms. We thought we were prepared but actually we were still quite shocked at how little space we got. Especially, as the hotels were not exactly budget prices. On the other hand, what they lack in size they more than make up for in amenities and customer service.
So, unless you are really splashing out don’t expect a huge room. It’s normal, especially in cities like Tokyo. But do expect a warm welcome, lots of little extras like slippers, toiletries and bathrobes. Plus, you won’t get better customer service anywhere.
What to do and where to go in Japan
One of the things I enjoy most about planning a trip is deciding where to go and what to see. When you start planning your trip to Japan you need to draw up a list of places to go. Although in comparison to some other countries, Japan isn’t that large, it’s still big enough that you’ll struggle to see everything in one trip. So, inevitably, you’ll need to make some decisions. What should you include and what, sadly, you need to leave out?
Throughout my blog, I concentrate on telling you about the places I’ve been and things I’ve seen. I like to give my personal views on places and I can only do that if I’ve been there myself. So, here, I’m going to tell you about the places we visited on our trip and hopefully give you some ideas of where you want to go. Of course, there are lots more places to see in Japan and a huge array of things to do. Hopefully, I’ll be going back to Japan again as it’s such an amazing place to travel. For now, here’s a summary of what we did and some recommendations on places you need to consider when planning your trip to Japan.
We started our tour of Japan in Osaka and it’s the perfect introduction to the country. Discover castles, museums and canals. Enjoy fabulous food and great nightlife. Read all about our itinerary here and start planning your own.
You can easily visit the Peace Park at Hiroshima on a day trip from Osaka. It’s a very moving experience and a great excuse for a trip on the famous bullet train or Shinkansen. Combine your trip to Hiroshima with a visit to Miyajima Island to see the famous floating Torri Gate. Check out my 2-day Osaka itinerary for details.
No visit to Japan would be complete without seeing the ancient capital of Kyoto. Take a day trip from Osaka or stay a while and really explore this amazing place. Take a look at my 3-day Osaka itinerary for details of how to visit Kyoto from Osaka. And check out my guide to Kyoto here.
Japan’s current capital is a modern, vibrant city and there is so much to see and do here. Firstly, read my guide on how to get to Tokyo from Kyoto by train. It’s a great way to get from ancient capital to present-day capital and you can get a glimpse of Mount Fuji on the way. Then check out my guide to sightseeing in Kyoto.
Tokyo to Yokohama by Train
We headed to Yokohama to board our cruise ship across the Pacific. It’s an easy trip from central Tokyo by train. Just follow these simple instructions on travelling from central Tokyo to Yokohama cruise terminal by train.
The small coastal town of Kamakura makes a great day trip from Tokyo or Yokohama. See the Giant Buddha at nearby Hase, walk along Yuigahama Beach and visit Tsurugaoka Hachimangu Shrine. Read my guide to visiting Kamakura here.
We stopped at Aomori on our cruise from Japan to Vancouver. The first part of the cruise was exploring the coast of Japan. Aomori is the topmost port on the main island of Honshu and it’s not really on the main tourist trail. I think this makes it a fabulous, non-touristy place to explore so if you do happen to be heading this way get out and about and discover Aomori with my travel guide.
The port city of Hakodate was one of the first Japanese cities to open up to international trade and the signs are everywhere. Take the ropeway to the top of Hakodate for breathtaking views across two bays. Then take a walk through the historic area of Motomachi to see buildings which showcase Hakodates’s international relationships.
Read my guide to sightseeing in Hakodate here and enjoy everything this fascinating city has to offer.
Our final stop in Japan was in Kushiro which is in eastern Hokkaido. It’s famous for the wild Japanese red-crown cranes which are found in the marshlands outside the city. However, there is plenty to see within walking distance of the cruise terminal if you want to explore on your own rather than taking a ship excursion.
Read my sightseeing guide to Kushiro here. Finally, enjoy your time in Japan. It’s an amazing country and very welcoming to tourists.
Suggested 7 Day Itinerary
To help you get started with planning your own trip to Japan, I’ve put together a suggested 7-day itinerary. This is based on our travels in Japan and it worked well for us. Of course, you’ll want to adapt it to suit your own requirements but it’s a good starting point. Read my suggested 7-day itinerary for exploring Japan here.
Finally, enjoy your time in Japan. It’s an amazing country and very welcoming to tourists.