What can I say except that Japan was amazing. We managed to squeeze SO much into our 9 day visit, and I’m going to share it ALL. But because we went to so many places, I’m going to break this into a few different posts.
Here you will find all your general info about Japan – when to visit, what to expect, how to get around, helpful tips, and more. The links below are detailed city guides on the specific places we visited.
WHEN TO VISIT
First things first – when should you plan your trip? There isn’t a right or wrong answer here, BUT there are a few things to consider. Spring and fall are definitely the PEAK tourist season. Have you heard of the cherry blossoms (March – May)? And fall foliage usually brings in the crowds (October – November), but also lots of rain (September). Summers are typically HOT and humid, and of course winter can get COLD but is the low season for tourism.
We visited the first week of December, so we were lucky to miss the high crowds coming to see the changing autumn leaves BUT lucky enough to enjoy the fall colors thanks to a late peak of autumn leaves this year.
Now don’t go thinking just because you visit in low season it won’t be crowded – it’s one of the most populated countries in the world. But that’s part of the experience!
WHAT TO PACK
This definitely depends when you visit – be sure to check the weather before your trip and plan accordingly. I would recommend trying to pack fairly light if possible. Layering is key, as well as packing pieces you can mix and match to create different outfits. This is especially helpful if you plan on traveling to multiple cities. It will make getting on and off trains much easier.
A few things you’ll want no matter what time of year you visit:
• Rail Pass (more on this below)
• Cash (Japanese Yen)
• Portable Charger
• Camera (or just use your phone!)
• Other Tech (chargers, headphones, etc.)
• Flight Essentials (travel pillow, sleep mask, etc.)
• Toiletries (don’t forget any medications!)
• Comfortable Shoes
• Versatile (and seasonally appropriate) clothing
TRAINS AND THE JR PASS
If you plan on traveling to at least 2 different cities, purchasing a JR Pass is a MUST! The rail pass basically grants you unlimited access to any JR trains in the country, including the Shinkansen (bullet train). One round trip from Tokyo to Kyoto is cheaper using the JR Pass than if you purchase a Shinkansen ticket on your own.
A few things to note about the JR Pass:
• You MUST purchase this BEFORE you visit Japan. You cannot buy it once you are there as it is only available to foreign visitors.
• You will have to activate your pass once you get to Japan, so depending on your trip length you may not want to activate your pass on Day 1. (For example, we had a 7-day pass, but our trip was 9 days. We needed our pass for the last 7 days of the trip so we waited until Day 3 to get it activated.)
• The pass does exclude a few of the Shinkansen so make sure you check beforehand. I’m sharing some great apps below that tell you exactly which trains you can board using the JR Pass.
THE SUBWAY AND LOCAL TRAINS
For non-JR trains, you’ll need to purchase a Pasmo or Suica card (interchangeable and available at each station). These are reloadable and work throughout the COUNTRY, so if you buy one in Tokyo, you can use the same card in Kyoto.
Most trains run from 5am – midnight.
Taxis and Uber are also great ways to get around if you need to be somewhere before or after the trains are running. Or sometimes it’s just a little more convenient.
APPS TO DOWNLOAD
• Google Translate
• Japan Direct and/or Hyperdia: Best apps for looking up trains. Both apps allow you to search specifically for JR Pass routes as well.
• Japan Taxi and Uber
• Currency Converter
• Have cash (yen) on hand – I was surprised by how many places didn’t take credit card!
• There are almost NO public trash cans, so be prepared to keep trash with you. With that said, it is SO INCREDIBLY CLEAN everywhere.
• No tipping anywhere.
• Keep left on side walks, escalators, etc. They drive on the left side too.
• Slurping is ok!