Planning a trip to Japan should be exciting!
But it can also be daunting and the options for what to do potentially overwhelming.
To help you get started, I’ve compiled 4 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.
This is only the first springboard, but I’ve found this approach to be helpful to others, especially when planning their first trip. But this isn’t only for first-timers. 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…
- What Are You After?
- How Long Can You Stay?
- Where Will You Stay
- Do You Speak Japanese?
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, and then think about when you are back home – what would be the stories or experiences, adventures, places, sights and sounds you experienced during your trip you would want to have and convey to family and friends.
Thinking about and forming some idea of what the takeaway memories you want after you’ve visited Japan will make pre-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 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.
2.) How Long Can You Stay?The budget you want to make available will determine your options here but if you are travelling a major 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.
You want to be thinking of between 2-3 weeks if you can. 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 will be hampered by jet lag.
If you are staring from East Asia (e.g. China, India, South Korea) then your flights times can be considerably shorter and therefore a correspondingly shorter break is a practical alternative if holidays are in short supply.
3.) Where Will You Stay?
This is obviously linked to question 1 and 2 but one of the single most essential experiences 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 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.]
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 investigating.
4.) Do You Speak Japanese?Chances are you don’t.
Don’t worry not many people can.
I still can’t – and I have a Japanese wife and family and have been exploring Japan since the 1990s. (I know, shameful.)
Whilst having a Japanese partner is an invaluable asset and advantage, it may not be convenient for you to marry a Japanese person right now. No matter, being unable to speak the language will not be the barrier you might think.
The Japanese tourist authorities are acutely aware of the perception that their language can be a major turn-off in deciding to visit their lovely country. Don’t let it be a reason to stop you. Major tourist offices will certainly have English (often multi-lingual) speaking staff and literature.
Big department stores and chain brands will at least have store guides in English. Even some small restaurants in cities and bigger towns will have English menus.
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.
Admittedly, I encourage you to go off the well-beaten tourist trail where English language support will be either more sparse or non-existent; but do not underestimate either the helpfulness of random Japanese people you will meet on your travels (who will go out of their way to help you, and then some), nor just how much you can convey with a phrase book (or smartphone app), exaggerated gesticulation and saying English words in a Japanese accent. I’m serious. I still do this.
Minimise Hassle and Have The Best Possible Time
Asking and answering these 4 simple questions will enable you (and those you are travelling with) to identify the main elements of your trip and to plan accordingly. It will help minimise any hassle once you’re there and help ensure you have the best possible time once you are there.
These are just my suggested 4 questions to begin how you 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…
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