Japan Travel Tips
by Philbert Ono
Last updated: Oct. 1, 2008
This is (or will be) a comprehensive guide for visiting and traveling around Japan. It is largely based on my own personal experience from years of traveling around Japan. First-time visitors as well as Japan residents will find this page helpful for practical tips, advice, and suggestions for discovering Japan. I'm very into promoting tourism in Japan. I want more people to visit Japan. Why? Because I want more people to better understand Japan, and the first step is for you to visit this country. After any visit to Japan, the word "Japan" will conjure up a totally different (and more accurate) picture of the country in your mind.
Japan is one of the major countries of the world, thus making it one of the "must-visit" countries of the world. It is also one of the most misunderstood and contradictory places you'll ever find. However, you will find Japan to be most fascinating and there is always something that will interest you. If you're a photographer like me, you'll find Japan to be a paradise of visual stimuli and photo ops.
Where to Visit
All the travel guide books will tell you about the must-see places in Japan. Here's my own list.
- Mt. Fuji
The following have numerous attractions within a small area. They are well-geared for tourists.
- Matsue, Shimane
- Shirakawa-go, Gifu
- Tohoku Summer Festivals
- Minabe, Wakayama during Mar.
- Noto Peninsula
- Miura Peninsula
- Izu Peninsula
- Fuji Five Lakes
- Kurobe Alpine Route
- Amanohashidate and Tango Peninsula
- Lake Toya
- Seto Inland Sea
- Kumamoto-Mt. Aso
- Ogasawara islands
- Lake Mashu
Before You Go
For any trip, you have to decide when to go, how long to stay, where to visit, what to do, etc. To help you make such decisions, you will need a good amount of Japan travel information. Most people would buy a Japan travel guide book. This is fine, but be aware that guide books provide only superficial information and few photos. You could also see Web sites such as the Japan National Tourist Organization, but information in English is still on the superficial level. For many visitors, this might be enough. But if you want to explore unbeaten paths and do unusual things, you will need other sources of information.
Japan has a lot more to offer than the sights listed in the guide books and Web sites. You don't know what you don't know. Of course, the best source of travel information is in Japanese. All 47 prefectures and most cities, towns, and villages have a department to promote tourism. They usually have a good number of pamphlets and information on paper and online. When you come to Japan, visit the Tourist Information Office in Narita Airport or in Tokyo. Maps and other brochures can be had. Also, many major train stations, such as Kyoto Station, have a tourist information counter where you can obtain travel information. If you're lucky, someone might be able to speak English.
When to Go
Most guide books and people will tell you spring and fall are the best times to visit Japan. I would agree with this, but Japan is perfectly fine for travelers any time of the year. There's always something unique about every month of the year. You should decide when to visit depending on your personal interests and preferences.
One major thing I love about Japan is that it has four distinct seasons (and maybe one or two lesser seasons such as the rainy season). Since each season comes around only once a year, I (and many others) make an effort to do the typical things the current season has to offer. For example, in spring, we go out and picnic under the cherry blossoms (hanami); in summer, we go to the beach, eat watermelon, and shoot or watch fireworks; in fall, we eat persimmons and see autumn leaves; and in winter we ski or snowboard and eat nabe stews.
In Japan, the climate and temperature changes every month. It is either getting warmer or colder until we hit the month of Aug. when it is the hottest or Feb. when it is the coldest month. We are either wearing more clothing or less clothing every month. If you live here, you'll know how we are constantly adapting to the changing climate and never fail to be amazed by the changing seasons. Also, rain is a possibility on any day of the year in Japan. If you make outdoor plans, you should also think about what to do if it rains. Should also carry an umbrella whenever you travel in Japan.
Another major thing I love about Japan is festivals (matsuri). I'm a Festival Freak or a Matsuri Maniac. I love to see and photograph the many festivals in Japan, large and small. There are so many festivals in Japan that it's impossible to see them all in one lifetime. Most matsuri are religious or some kind of prayer, usually for a bountiful harvest, personal safety, or good fortune. Most festivals have morphed into a big celebration or event when people can get together and rejoice. It's a celebration of life. They continue Japanese traditions and culture and pass it on to the next generation. At a festival, you can see and feel the great energy, vitality, and happiness of the people. I think that women look most vivacious when in a festival.
This is understandably the favorite season for many people in Japan. It comes after the cold, dark winter. By early March, most of us are weary from three cold months (unless you're in Okinawa) and yearn for warmth. By late March when it does get slightly warmer, it is uplifting and boosts morale. We also start to hear weather forecasts (sometimes inaccurate) for the blooming of the cherry blossoms. March has a sumo tournament in Osaka.
If you're fortunate enough to visit Japan during late March or early April, you'll likely to see the cherries in bloom. However, it is difficult to forecast the exact period (about 1 week) when the cherry blossoms will be in full bloom. It's hard to tell until about 2 weeks before it happens. Note that cherry blossoms bloom from Okinawa to Hokkaido. So even if you are too early or too late to see the cherries in Tokyo, you could travel south or north and still see the flowers in bloom. In Hokkaido, the cherries bloom in May (ume plum blossoms also bloom at the same time). Cherry blossoms are commonly found in parks, gardens, along the river, castle grounds, Shinto shrines, and even cemeteries.
April, the main month of spring, brings comfortable temperatures. Bare winter trees come to life with flowers or green leaves. It's also the start of the school year and fiscal year when newly-hired college graduates start working at their corporate or governmental jobs. Numerous festivals are also held in April. In Kyoto, the Miyako Odori (Cherry Dance), performed by geisha and maiko, is held during the entire month. The best time to see real geisha for cheap.
Spring flowers also come out in force. After the cherry blossoms come the azalea and wisteria. During late April and early May in the Tokyo area, azaleas are ubiquitous. In Tokyo, Nezu Shrine is famous for azalea (tsutsuji) and Kameido Shrine is noted for wisteria. We also have yaezakura which look like thick, pink cherry blossoms. If you're a flower photographer, come to Japan in April.
Late April to early May is also Golden Week, a string of national holidays creating a week-long spring vacation. Trains, planes, and expressways leaving Tokyo will be jam packed at the start of this period. Most of these people are going back to their parents' home. It might be a good time to visit Tokyo during this time since there are fewer people. Less traffic everywhere during Golden Week.
Early May is also Children's Day when you can see colorful koinobori carp streamers hoisted high on a flagpole or on a cable strung across a river. In Asakusa, Tokyo, Sanja Matsuri is a huge festival of portable shrines (mikoshi) carried around the streets.
June brings the rainy season, usually starting from the middle of the month. It lasts until mid or late July. June is associated with hydrangea flowers. Hydrangea even symbolizes the rainy season. We also can see irises of many varieties. In Tokyo, Horikiri Iris Garden and Mizumoto Park have large patches of irises.
By late May, it's short-sleeve weather. June temperatures are reasonably comfortable, and the rain brings some coolness. Note that even during the rainy season, we do have days of sunshine. Depending on the year, we may have more or less rain. The rainy season (and typhoon season in Sept.) are very important for replenishing the water reservoirs. If it rains too little, swimming pools may not open in the summer. I welcome the rain, even though it forces me to stay home. We need the water.
June is also rice-planting season. There are rice-planting festivals where the rice planters in colorful clothing plant rice seedings in flooded paddies. July can get quite hot and muggy. When the rainy season ends, it is the summer season in Japan with hot and humid days ahead. The kids are also out of school. Outdoor swimming pools open. Beaches are also open for swimmers. Fireworks are displayed almost every weekend somewhere in the Tokyo area during July and Aug. In Japan, shooting fireworks is a summer tradition. It's not done for any celebration (like the 4th of July). People may dress in yukata (cotton kimono) and watch fireworks in the sky. We also buy sparklers, etc., for the kids at home. We eat watermelon (seasonal fruit available only in summer) and snow cones (kakigori).
Summer festivals abound as well. July sees the Gion Matsuri in Kyoto which is a procession of tall, ornate wooden floats. Awa Odori is a big dance parade with an infectious beat held in Tokushima in Aug. and in various places in Tokyo during July-Aug. and northern Japan holds spectacular Tohoku summer festivals with Sendai Tanabata, Akita Kanto Matsuri, Aomori Nebuta Matsuri (also Hirosaki Neputa Matsuri), and Yamagata Hanagasa Matsuri. Very impressive, but reserve your hotel well in advance. Or stay at a capsule hotel.
Mid-August also has the Obon season when working people take their summer vacation. As during Golden Week in late April, beware of the crowds exiting Tokyo. Bon dances are held almost everywhere, not only at Buddhist temples.
July and Aug. can get very hot and humid, making you drip with sweat after walking outside for only a few minutes. Take care to prevent heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Drink ample liquids even before you feel thirsty. Also include sports drinks to replenish lost salt and minerals. (But don't drink too much since they contain sugar.) Mugi-cha tea (non-caffeine and zero calories) is also good for lowering your body temperature. It's not a good idea to go jogging under the sun in midday. Some days can be really hot, humid, and with no wind. It can be so humid that your sweat does not have a chance to evaporate and cool your body. This can be dangerous, so allow your body to cool down occasionally by entering an air-conditioned building.
Being such a humid month, Aug. is also prime time for sudden thunderstorms and even typhoons. The humid air creates some huge thunderclouds which can rain like crazy all of a sudden. If you're playing on or near a river, check the clouds upstream. If it looks dark gray upstream, the river can suddenly overflow and wash you away from the torrential rains upstream. Always carry an umbrella. It can be sunny in the morning, but change to thunder and lightning in the afternoon. Check the weather forecast before going out. On the bright side, these heavy showers usually last for only 30-60 min. and stops or decreases to a drizzle after the thundercloud goes away.
Early Sept. still has summer temperatures. But it soon inevitably gets cooler, to the relief of our hot, sweaty heads. (We don't need to shower twice a day anymore.) But Sept. is also typhoon season. Sometimes they can be quite damaging. But I've never seen the type of damage done by hurricanes in the Gulf states of the US. Okinawa is especially prone to typhoons, much more than the rest of Japan.
Sept. also has a sumo tournament in Tokyo. We have two national holidays in Sept. Respect for the Aged on the third Mon. and the autumnal equinox on the 23rd.
Oct. has pleasant temperatures. We often hear the term "aki no shokuyoku" (autumn appetite). It's when we have all kinds of autumn delicacies, namely matsutake mushrooms, persimmons, and other goodies. Fall is also a cultural season in schools and museums. There are many cultural activities and exhibitions. Galleries and exhibition spaces are busy in fall.
Nov. is the heart of autumn. The leaves start to turn color (earlier in Hokkaido). Red maple leaves (momiji) and yellow gingko leaves make the landscape very colorful. In Kyoto, fall is the busiest tourist season. The roads are gridlocked on weekends. Hordes of tourists visit temples and gardens for their fall leaves. Many places also light up the leaves at night, making it look like a painting on a black canvas. Nov. 3 is also Culture Day, a national holiday when many cultural festivals are held. In Tokyo, the Jidai Matsuri is held in Asakusa. Nov. is another month full of festivals in Japan. The air is significantly colder by then.
Dec. is year-end partying (bo'nenkai) and Christmas. However, Christmas in Japan just does not feel like the Christmas back home (USA). For one thing, Dec. 25 is not a holiday. It is just another working day in Japan. (However, Dec. 23 is a holiday for the Emperor's birthday.) You will see Christmas decorations in the stores and girls in Santa suits passing out pamphlets for whatever. We don't normally send Christmas cards either. (We do it for New Year's Day.) And most Japanese families don't buy or have a Christmas tree at home. Christmas in Japan is almost totally commercial. Christians are a minority in Japan.
It is traditional to do a major housecleaning (osoji) so we can greet the New Year with a clean house. In late Dec. you will see people cleaning their windows outside or people in the office cleaning out their desks, etc. The big event in Dec. is New Year's Eve. People go out to temples to ring the temple bell during the hours before and after midnight. And on TV, NHK's Kohaku Utagassen Red and White Song Contest is still watched by millions.
New Year's Day is by far Japan's most celebrated holiday. Billions of New Year's postcards are sent and received. Writing these postcards (called nengajo) is an annual year-end tradition. Fortunately, this chore has been made much less troublesome and time-consuming with personal computers and inkjet printers which we can use to print out our New Year's message (and photo) as well as the recipient's address. Once upon a time, we wrote the recipient's address by hand. Even the post office sells postcards made for inkjet printing. Good for the sender, but it still feels more personal to receive a handwritten card.
During the first week of the year, the masses go to Shinto shrines to pray for good fortune and health during the new year. If you want to see and experience a national holiday in Japan, visit during New Year's. Meiji Shrine in Tokyo is one of the most popular shrines in Japan for New Year's worshippers. You wouldn't believe the crowds there on New Year's Day, and the huge money pit where people toss their monetary offerings. Shrines receive much of their income during New Year's. In recent years, I hardly see people wearing kimono to worship at the shrines (sigh). Also, most of the shops and supermarkets are open during New Year's, making it feel less holiday-like. Once upon a time, we had to stock up on food and cash before the year-end because all the banks and supermarkets would be closed for a few days around Dec. 30 to Jan. 3.
Jan. 15 is Coming of Age Day, a national holiday when you can see young men and women dressed in kimono who finally reached the legal age. It's a good time to go out and shoot these kimono-clad new adults. They typically go to shrines.
Feb. is cold. For people who don't ski, it can be a miserable month. In the really snowy areas like Tohoku and Hokkaido, they cleverly invented enjoyable snow or ice festivals to brighten up the dark mood of winter. The most famous is of course the Sapporo Snow Festival held in early Feb. Massive snow sculptures are on display. Feb. also has Setsubun bean throwing at major temples all over Japan. The famous temples have celebrities such as actors, actresses, sports figures, and sumo wrestlers throwing the beans. If you like skiing/snowboarding, the best snow is in Hokkaido. There are a few ski resorts near Sapporo (easy day trip) such as Kokusai Ski-jo. Further away is the famous Niseko ski resort. Near Tokyo, Niigata is the best bet. Easily accessible by shinkansen bullet train. To avoid the crowds, I get to the ski grounds at around 3 pm when people are starting to go home. Then I go night skiing until the last train back to Tokyo. Night skiing is much less crowded. It's colder too, but the bumpy snow is easier to see with the night lights.
Japan has a world-class public transportation system. Its railways are among the best in the world. There are also inter-city and local buses, ferries, taxis, air travel, and rental bicycles.
You might have already heard about how punctual Japan's trains are. It's true. You could set your watch with your train's departure/arrival time. However, accidents (people jumping in front of the train), the weather (heavy rain or snow), and natural disasters (earthquakes) can delay the trains. If you have a Japan Railpass, it will be a bargain to travel by rail. Otherwise, riding the shinkansen can be quite expensive for long distances.
Japan Railways is the largest group of railway companies. You don't need to distinguish between the different JR companies (JR East, JR West, etc.) because they all work together seamlessly. They operate the shinkansen lines and most of the major rail lines in Japan. There are also many other private railway companies operating smaller and shorter rail lines or subways. There are no railways in Okinawa (except a monorail).
One drawback to trains in Japan is that you will have to go up and down the stairs a lot. If you have heavy luggage or a lot of luggage, try to look for an escalator or elevator at the train station especially in large cities. And inside the train, even in the shinkansen, there is little space for large pieces of luggage. A large suitcase won't fit on the overhead rack, so it will end up in the aisle. So bring smaller suitcases or a backpack instead. Smaller luggage will also fit easier inside the coin-operated lockers at train stations.
Buying a train/subway ticket is easy. Above the ticket vending machine is a map or list of all the places you could go. The ticket price is indicated for each destination shown on the map or list. Put in the money required and press the button for the respective ticket price. Out comes the ticket and any change. If you cannot read Japanese, look for a rail map or list in English. Or you can just buy the cheapest ticket and pay the difference when you arrive, at the fare adjustment machine. Stick the ticket into the machine and it will tell you how much you have to pay. Pay the difference and a new ticket comes out which you use to exit the train station.
At large Japan Railways train stations, there are ticket offices called Midori-no-Madoguchi. It looks green, and you can buy your tickets from a human. This office is for buying long distance tickets (shinkansen) and reserved seats.
The shinkansen and tokkyu express trains have non-smoking cars in both the reserved and non-reserved sections of the train. In local trains and subways, smoking is prohibited. Eating and drinking is permitted on all trains and subways. However, avoid putting on your makeup on the train/subway. This is a frequent sight in Japan, with young women and high school girls putting on makeup in the train. It's not against the law, and they won't kick you out of the train, but it's frowned upon. Same for cell phones. Set it to vibration mode. Local trains/subways also have courtesy seats for the handicapped, elderly, pregnant women, etc. Don't sit there.
If you forgot something on the train, inform the nearest train station immediately. Tell them which train (departure/arrival date/time) and which car (front, middle, back, etc.) you forgot it in. Describe the forgotten item in detail. There is a chance you will get it back. If it was an umbrella or handkerchief, forget about it. If it was a camera, pray that no one stole it. (I actually forgot my camera on the train twice, and got it back both times.) So before you leave your seat, look back at your seat to make sure you didn't forget anything.
Where you cannot go by rail, it's likely that you can get there by bus. There are inter-city buses and local buses. The inter-city buses are long-distance buses which carry people between major cities such as Tokyo, Nagoya, and Osaka. If you don't have a Japan Railpass and want to travel cheaply, these long-distance buses are a viable option if you have the time to spend half the day (or all night) in the bus. For example, Tokyo to Nagoya takes 5 hr. and 30 min. compared to the 2 hours via shinkansen. The bus fare is a lot cheaper, around 3,500 to 4,000 yen compared to around 10,000 yen via shinkansen. Besides JR Highway Bus Co. (the most expensive), there are numerous bus companies offering long-distance bus routes. Check around for the best fares.
Local buses operate within the immediate local area. When you board a local bus, first you have to figure out whether you have to pay the bus fare when you get on or when you get off. If you have to board the bus at the front (next to the bus driver), then you likely have to pay first, so have your change ready. If you board the bus at the middle of the bus, you usually have to take a numbered ticket (seiriken) and pay when you get off. The front of the bus will have a fare table showing how much to pay with respect to the number on your ticket. In central Tokyo (metropolitan buses), you pay when you get on, a flat fee of 200 yen no matter the distance you travel.
The major train and subway stations will have bus stops. You need to know which bus to board to get to your destination. If you can't read Japanese, you'll have to find out which bus stop (number) to board the bus. Or ask the bus driver if the bus will go to your destination. He can tell you which bus to board. It's also essential to know the name of the bus stop to get off. Keep listening to the bus stop announcements. If you cannot understand Japanese, avoid taking the bus or have a Japanese-speaking person to go with you. Or take a taxi.
Taking a taxi is the most expensive way to travel, but most convenient and sometimes the only way to go. Minimum fare is around 700 yen. It is a totally safe way to travel. The taxi driver will not jack up the price because you're a foreigner. Be aware that the taxi's back doors open and close automatically. (Not so for the front door.) According to law, you also have to wear a seat belt even in the back seat of a car/taxi. If you can't speak Japanese, best to show the driver the destination address or place written in Japanese. You can pick up a taxi at train/subway stations and on major roads. In rural areas, there are fewer taxis and find out where they are or how to call a taxi.
In Tokyo, for slightly farther distances, you have the option of taking the metropolitan expressway (shuto kosoku-doro). This will be faster, but it will cost more than the normal taxi fare. The taxi fare also increases late at night.
Where to Visit
Festivals and Events
Meeting the Japanese