So you want to plan a trip to Japan?
This should be exciting, but it can also be daunting, and the options for where to go and what to do potentially overwhelming.
To help you get started, I've compiled 4 easy steps, in the form of key questions you should think about and answer.
These will help you determine where to go, how long to go for, what to see and do and how to manage when you are there.
Plan a trip to Japan in 4 easy steps
This is only the first springboard to get you started, but I've found this approach to be helpful to others.
But this isn't only for those planning their first trip. Even now, after decades of travelling around Japan, I still use these steps to generate ideas. If you use them, it will help you discover The Real Japan...
1.) What Are You After?
Before you get too involved in the planning process, pause, try to clear your mind of the pre-conceptions you may have about Japan. Then think about when you are back home.
What would be the stories, adventures, places, sights and sounds you experienced during your trip that you would want to be able to tell family and friends about?
Thinking about creating future memories
Thinking about and forming some idea of what your takeaway memories will be after you've visited Japan will make planning before you go there a whole lot easier.
Just one very important tip on places to visit: there is far more to Japan than just Tokyo! By all means visit Tokyo, but please only have that as one part of your trip. The Real Japan lies far beyond Tokyo alone.
Related: Why You Need To Go Beyond Tokyo
2.) How Long Can You Stay?
The budget you want to (or can) make available will determine your options here.
If you are travelling a significant distance, e.g. from Europe, North America or Australasia, then the bare minimum duration I'd recommend visiting is 10 days. It is possible to do less. I've done 8 days before from the UK (and my wife once even did a long weekend around a business trip – not recommended!) but it is far from ideal.
Related: Japan Rail Pass Ultimate Guide
What if you suffer from jetlag?
You want to be thinking of between 2-3 weeks if possible. Any more than that is a bonus. If you tend to suffer from jet lag make sure you factor that into your plans, i.e. the shorter the trip the greater the proportion of your time there could be hampered by jet lag.
If you are starting from within Asia (e.g. China, Singapore, Phillipines, Malaysia) then your flights times can be considerably shorter and a correspondingly shorter break is a practical alternative if days available to you are in short supply.
3.) Where Will You Stay?
This is obviously linked to questions 1 and 2 above, but the single most essential experience of visiting Japan that I recommend everyone builds into their budget and itinerary is to stay at least one night in a traditional ryokan.
The more remote the better. High up a mountain, overlooking a river, covered in winter snow are all recommedned. And if that ryokan also has an onsen then that would be perfect. If you want to know more about staying in a ryokan then read this article.
Ryokan, minshuku, hotels, Airbnb
Compared with the west, western-style hotels in Japan (often referred to as 'business hotels') can offer good value accommodation. Deals can sometimes be found online, on the hotel's website or on their Facebook page.
If you're doing things on a budget then there is a decent network of hostels (in one of the safest countries in the world) and camping is another option.
You may want to spend a little more and stay in minshuku (the Japanese equivalent of bed and breakfast) where you'll be staying with someone in a spare room in their own home (where meals are sometimes also included in the price).
Airbnb has plenty of accommodation across Japan spanning the price spectrum and is well worth considering.
4.) Do You Speak Japanese?
Chances are you don't. That's okay. Not many people can.
I still can't, and I have a Japanese wife and have been exploring Japan since 2000. (I know, shameful.)
Whilst having a Japanese partner is an invaluable asset and an advantage, it may not be convenient for you to marry a Japanese person right now. No matter, being unable to speak the language may not quite be the barrier you might think it is.
Japanese tourism authorities are acutely aware of the perception that their language can be a reason some people decide not to visit their lovely country. Don't let it be a reason to stop you. Major tourist offices will have English (often multi-lingual) speaking staff and literature.
Big department stores and chain brands will at least have basic department and floor guides in English. Even some small restaurants in cities and bigger towns will have menus in English.
Using public transport to get around Japan is the best practical option for most first-time visitors. All major train lines and roads and even some buses have signs and announcements in English in addition to the native Japanese.
How to Travel in Japan Without Speaking Japanese
One of the major considerations with travelling in Japan is the inscrutable Japanese language.
A seemingly incomprehensible, often kaleidoscopic, barrage of cryptic symbols awaits the foreign traveller who doesn’t speak or read the language.
I’ve been exploring Japan since 2000 and I’ve picked up plenty of tips along the way.
I’ve distilled decades of my experience into this ebook for you.
This practical Guide and Workbook covers all the essential basics you need to ensure your first (or next) trip to Japan is as Amazing as you deserve it to be.
Admittedly, I encourage you to go off the beaten path where English language support will be either more sparse or even non-existent.
But do not underestimate either the helpfulness of random Japanese people you will meet on your travels.
They will go out of their way to help you, and then some. Nor just how much you can convey with a phrasebook (or smartphone app), exaggerated gesticulation and saying English words in a Japanese accent.
I'm serious. I still do this!
Just to be clear, I'm not saying you shouldn't try to speak some Japanese.
I'm just saying don't beat yourself up if you can't. If you want more information and tips on travelling in Japan when you don't speak the language, I recommend checking this out.
Minimising massle, having the best possible time
Asking and answering these 4 simple questions will enable you (and anyone you are travelling with) to identify the main elements of your trip and to plan accordingly. It will minimise any hassle once you're there, and help ensure you have the best possible time once you are here.
These are my suggested 4 questions to approach how to plan a trip to Japan.
You may want to change these or add one or two additional questions that are especially pertinent to your own personal circumstances. Feel free!
I'd love to hear how you answer these (and any other) questions and to know how you intend to (or did) apply them to your travels in The Real Japan.
Please share your thoughts, feedback and questions by leaving a comment below...