NEW! Where to Go, Stay and How to Communicate in Japan

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Japan is an incredible travel destination, but a vastly different culture and language can make it daunting, and not just for first-timers. 

But it need not be that way. 

As a long-time Japan explorer, here are some of my best ideas and essential tips to help you visit like a seasoned pro, stress-free. 

We'll cover the top destinations for a quick first visit, lodging options that offer an authentic experience, hidden treasure towns worth going off-the-beaten-path for, and how to overcome the language barrier through smart prep and mindset adjustments.

Read on to ensure your travels in this one-of-a-kind country are rewarding adventures rather than ineffective expeditions. 

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where to go, stay and how to communicate in Japan The Real Japan Rob Dyer

Where to Go, Stay and How to Communicate in Japan
by Rob Dyer

What are the ‘top 3’ cities to visit?

One question I get asked quite often by those planning their first trip to Japan is: "If you only had one week in Japan, what are the top 3 cities to visit?" The so-called 'Golden Route' - of Tokyo, Kyoto and Hiroshima - is the obvious suggestion for the first timer.

And with good reason. You'll get a broad  introduction to the wealth of variety Japan has to offer in its cities by spending time in those three. And, if you're willing to wander a little, it's possible in each of them to also get off-the-beaten-path and away from the crowds. 


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New city ideas on each of the 3 main islands

If you've already visited those and want new city ideas then in the north I'd recommend Sapporo in Hokkaido, on the main island of Honshu I'd suggest taking a look at Himeji, Nagoya or Kobe, and on the southern island of Kyushu my number one recommendation is Nagasaki.

While Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hiroshima make up the classic "Golden Route" for first-timers, some of Japan's most rewarding travel experiences lie off the beaten path. Speaking of more off-the-beat destinations not to miss, the walkable city of Kanazawa and the ancient onsen town of Kinosaki offer.

Immaculate Conception Cathedral Nagasaki The Real Japan Rob Dyer

Nagasaki city in Kyushu looks and feels different due to foreign influences - as here in the Immaculate Conception Cathedral

The walkable city of Kanazawa

When I suggest cities for first-time visitors to Japan I often include Kanazawa for its cultural heritage, welcoming atmosphere, Kenrokuen - deemed to be one of the 3 best gardens in Japan, and original samurai houses, and Kinosaki Onsen on the Sea of Japan coast both for its seven public bathhouses and some fine examples of Japan's traditional traveller inns - ryokan.  

When it comes to cities in Japan I tend to gravitate towards the smaller ones that are easily explored on foot. Kanazawa is a good example and an attractive city, overlooking the Sea of Japan. It’s also a good base from which to explore surrounding villages and towns such as Shirakawa-go, Ainokura and Takayama.

Kenrokuen Japanese garden Kanazawa The Real Japan Rob Dyer

Kenrokuen garden in Kanazawa is considered to be one of Japan's top 3 gardens

You know it's a bit special when you arrive at Kanazawa's main train station and immediately outside is a huge, intricately crafted wooden torii gate on a tree-lined avenue that you walk through welcoming you. It has a castle which, albeit a modern reconstruction, has an unusually wide courtyard.

There's also a samurai district where you can see geisha clip-clopping down the streets and where jumping into a rickshaw for a guided tour is a nice way to spend an afteroon.


Diving deep into hot spring culture at Kinosaki Onsen

Kinosaki Onsen is one of my favourite spots in Japan and the archetypal 'hidden gem' if you are an onsen lover. The particularly clever thing that Kinosaki has managed to pull off (and few others have) is celebrating its rich history using tourism but without the commercialisation spoiling what makes it so special.

Kinosaki Onsen canal nighttime The Real Japan Rob Dyer

The central canal in Kinosaki Onsen is picturesque by night and day, and largely unchanged for hundreds of years

For example, the old town on either side of the canal and where all the onsen and most of the ryokan are located looks pretty much the same as it did hundreds of years ago. The local authority has an ordinance that in this area any new buildings cannot be more than two storeys high - thus preserving the view as it would largely have been to visitors centuries before. 


VIDEO: Riding The Kinosaki Onsen Ropeway to Mt. Daishi

When it comes to lodging options that'll fully immerse you in Japanese culture, expensive isn't always better. 

One size doesn't fit all Japan travel, so it's a good idea to consider the pros and cons of different accommodation styles. From space-efficient city hotels to traditional Japanese inns with local host families, here are some of my thoughts on where to stay.


Lodging in Japan - why I don’t use Airbnb, and what I recommend instead

When it comes to accommodation in Japan I tend to recommend small or boutique hotels in most cases over Airbnb. Most people enjoy their stays in micro hotels, but their first Airbnb (typically in Tokyo) can be very, very small. You can make them work, but it often isn't easy. Perhaps surprisingly, lack of space to store your luggage frequently crops up.

Osaka city guide Candeo hotels Namba The Real Japan

The Candeo chain of city-centre hotels are great value for money and include their signature rooftop spas - Candeo in Namba, Osaka

Although my wife and I frequently use Airbnb in Europe (and in the UK) I've never used it in Japan. Partly because it had a difficult start in Japan resulting in the Japanese government stepping in to introduce specific restrictions on its operation, and that it doesn't naturally sit well within the lodging culture here. 

Most (but by no means all) reports I get from people who have used it are that they were disappointed. Small size is a common problem. Shabby appearance (unusual for Japan) also features. 


Native options - ryokan, minshuku, guesthouses and hostels

With so many better, native options like ryokan - traditional Japanese inns, or minshuku, guesthouses or hostels (if you’re looking to keep costs down), I just don’t see the need to use it.

Chain hotels in Japan are excellent value. Rooms can be on the smaller side and storage (such as wardrobes) can be minimal when compared with their typical western counterparts, but they're usually impeccably clean and quiet, even in busy areas. 

Nanten-en ryokan Amami Osaka The Real Japan Rob Dyer

Nanten-en is a wonderful ryokan in Amami, a rural part of Osaka Prefecture and highly recommended

I always recommend staying at least one night in a ryokan - a traditional Japanese inn. These often include onsen (natural hot springs). Preferably located in the mountains, preferably in the winter when it snows and you're soaking in the onsen. That's a magical experience right there!


Minshuku - the Japanese equivalent of ‘bed and breakfasts’

Minshuku are kinda like Japanese bed and breakfasts - where you stay in someone's home in a spare room and share facilities and meals. That would be far better than Airbnb in my view and we've stayed in some lovely ones. If it's the 'self-contained' aspect of an Airbnb you're after then Japan has some excellent aparthotels, many of which can be found on major websites such as Booking.com, where they're typically referred to as 'Serviced Apartments'.

For those on a budget, hostels in Japan are a real eye-opener. They're not always shared rooms either. Some have 'family rooms' - which my wife and I have used with relatives. And my wife and I have stayed in hostels that have small private rooms. All for as little as $20/$30 per night.


Let’s talk about language learning for a moment

Wherever your Japan travels take you, one of the biggest hurdles first-timers face is the language barrier. With some creative problem-solving and an open mindset, it's absolutely surmountable. Here are a few helpful tools for non-Japanese speakers and mindset adjustments you can make.

Japanese train ticket The Real Japan Rob Dyer

You should be prepared to find that in many day-to-day activities English will either be limited or non-existent 

Let’s talk about language learning for a moment. There was no way most of us could learn much Japanese prior to our trip (although I do occasionally get emails from people saying they intend to learn the language before travelling), but there are several tools non-Japanese speakers can use to make life a bit easier.

Personally, I'm still a bit old school in that I have a collection of pocket-sized Berlitz phrase books, but I understand that I'm not typical and that many people (myself now included) turn to more modern technology to ease our travels.

A few years back I told people to stay away from Google Translate as it was practically useless. That's changed now and with the rise of AI real-time translation, services are rapidly improving. Google Lens is a good app to add as well. It replaces Google Translate's camera mode and some think it does better translation than actual Google Translate app.


VIDEO: Top 7 Etiquette Tips For Travel in Japan

I use both from time to time but I've noticed I'm using Lens more when travelling as I have also found the results to be better.

I have several blog posts about the potential language barrier. 

The most popular blog post on my site is Japan Without Japanese: How To Travel In Japan Without Speaking Japanese - which I expanded into an audiobook and eBook which are very popular. This just shows that most people are aware of the issue around the challenges of language and are seeking ways to best tackle it. 


My number 1 tip? Plan ahead

One thing I strongly recommend is planning ahead. That way you’ll identify potential tricky situations upfront and then find solutions for each situation, so that when you do arrive in Japan, things will go more smoothly. There’s five pre-trip planners included in my eBook and Audiobook to help with this.

Hiroshima Google map plan a trip to Japan Rob Dyer

Well-chosen, handy resources, like my Hiroshima City Guide Google Map, can make travel easier when in Japan

You can also book a meet & greet concierge service on arrival in Japan, where your personal assistant (fluent in English) will help you get your bearings and to assist with buying train tickets, onward travel, taking a taxi, or collecting pre-ordered pocket WiFi etc.

But, honestly, when it comes to lack of language it’s more about the mindset with which you approach situations than a 'Here's the 3 best language hacks', not least because everyone is an individual and we all come to these challenges differently. What works perfectly for one may be a complete pain for another to use. 


It’s easy to overthink this - I get it

In my posts, my biggest-selling eBook and audiobook I talk a lot about body language, tone of voice - those sort of tangible things that if you get them right, signal an awful lot to the Japanese and they’ll respond accordingly.

Personally, I like to not overthink this.

But I completely understand that this is a common issue that, for many people, can cause anxiety or stress. I never say 'make no effort to learn the language' but I know from personal experience that language learning isn't something everyone finds easy. 

how to communicate in Japan The Real Japan Rob Dyer

A little Japanese and basic understanding of Japanese culture can go far when travelling in Japan

Over the years, I’ve accumulated what I call 'survival Japanese', meaning I can travel and get by day to day on my own. A little Japanese can go a long way, so anything you can learn before will be valuable.

How you choose to learn it is best decided by you, but I continue to use the free version of Duolingo to study Japanese daily, if only to keep my vocabulary fresh in my mind.


Japan travel resources you might find helpful

How To Travel in Japan Without Speaking Japanese eBook

LANGUAGE HACKING TRAVEL GUIDE

How to Travel in Japan Without Speaking Japanese eBook

A practical Guide and Travel Planner covering all the essentials. No Japanese? No problem! Fully updated Second Edition. Features essential information and resources for travelling in Japan when you don't speak the language.
Planning A Trip To Japan book The Real Japan Rob Dyer

TRAVEL PLANNING GUIDEBOOK

Planning A Trip To Japan eBook Expanded Second Edition

A collection of guides, resources and practical advice from TheRealJapan.com to make your Japan Trip Planning Easy and InspiringExpanded Second Edition. More than 20 handy Japan Travel Guides in 247 pages.
How to Travel in Japan Without Speaking Japanese audiobook ebook bundle Rob Dyer The Real Japan

BESTSELLER EBOOK & AUDIOBOOK BUNDLE

How to Travel in Japan Without Speaking Japanese Audiobook & eBook Bundle

SAVE 41%! A money-saving bundle of my bestselling eBook and Audiobook editions of How To Travel in Japan Without Speaking Japanese.
INCLUDES: 10-page printable PDF travel planner
No Japanese? No problem!

Some concluding thoughts

I know Japan can seem incredibly daunting for first-time visitors. 

The language barrier, the unfamiliar customs, the maze-like cities - it's enough to make even seasoned travellers get cold feet. But trust me, if you go in with an open mind and a willingness to be flexible, you're going to have the adventure of a lifetime.

Use those translation apps and pick up a few key phrases, but don't obsess over language perfection. You'll get by just fine with positive body language, patience, and a respectful attitude

Rob Dyer Harukas rooftop Osaka The Real Japan

Start by doing some pre-planning for the major aspects of your journey: a list of your must-see places, transportation, accommodation, look for potential sticking points and try to solve them in advance, but also be ready to embrace the unexpected. That's all part of the thrill.

Once you’re in Japan, pay attention to the little details, talk to locals when you can, and remain endlessly curious about the fascinating culture around you.

If you have questions or start to feel overwhelmed, just remember I'm only a quick Zoom call away or you can email me with any questions and I'll respond. More than anything, I want you to experience the real magic of Japan that has captivated me for years.

If you have any questions, or want to share your own tips, leave a comment below...

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Rob Dyer The Real Japan

About the Author

A writer and publisher from England, Rob has been exploring Japan’s islands since 2000. He specialises in travelling off the beaten track, whether on remote atolls or in the hidden streets of major cities. He’s the founder of TheRealJapan.com.

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where to go, stay and how to communicate in Japan The Real Japan Rob Dyer

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Book Your Trip: Japan Travel Essentials

Click to See My Recommendations

Book Your Flight
Find the best flight by using Skyscanner. It's my go-to flight search engine because it has the most comprehensive global search options.

Book Your Accommodation
I frequently use Booking.com as they consistently offer the cheapest rates and most flexible cancellation options for hotels and guesthouses. Use Hostelworld if you're looking for budget-priced options.

Book Your Japan Rail Pass
The best official agent by a country mile is JRPass.com. Clear and easy to use website. Excellent customer service.

Book Your WiFi
I never travel in Japan without pocket WiFi. Get Ninja WiFi for unlimited internet everywhere, use Google Maps, supports up to 10 devices.

Book Your SIM Card or eSIM
Order your physical
SIM Cards or eSIMs to stay connected and in touch while in Japan.

Book Your Hire Car
Rent a car in Japan without speaking or reading Japanese via Booking.com's Car Rental portal.

Ready To Book Your Trip?
Check out my Recommended Japan Travel Resources. The list covers all the essentials. It’s filled with carefully selected travel resources. And I only include the best travel resources - those I use myself or recommend to my clients.

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