How to prepare for a trip to Japan – checklist included

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Traveling to a far destination is always overwhelming. Where do you even start planning a trip to Japan for the first time? You need to know what to visit, when to go, how to get around, what to eat. And this is just scratching the surface. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll be happy I wrote this guide on how to prepare for a trip to Japan.

What I can tell you from the beginning is that the way to approach this will depend greatly on your budget. If it’s unlimited, leave the budget planning at the end, which means “just go there and see how much you spend”. But for most of us, the budget is not unlimited.

In this case, I recommend starting with the budget. See how much you can afford to invest in this trip and decide how are you going to spend it. Do you care more about seeing the cherry blossoms or do you just want nice weather? Do you want a nice hotel or you’re more into eating your way through your trip? Hey, I never said planning a trip to Japan will be easy! Let’s get to it!

Tea room in a traditional Japanese house.

Estimate and decide on a budget

If only we would all be rich and famous! I’d even settle for “well off and with unlimited time” at this point, to be honest. But let’s face it, most of us have a limited amount of money we’re willing to invest in this trip. And Japan is known to be quite an expensive country, so knowing how to plan a trip to Japan on a budget can help a great deal.

Your budget will influence the time to go, first of all. The most expensive time to visit Japan is during Sakura, as it’s the peak tourist season. Everything is expensive during springtime, from airplane tickets to hotels. Another downfall of this season is that it cannot be predicted accurately, so you might not even see the cherry blossoms in the end.

Your budget will dictate the whole trip. How much time can you spend in Japan? I recommend staying for at least two weeks, as it’s not easy to come for a second visit later. But accommodation costs can add up and even one more night can seem like a burden at one point (have you heard of capsule hotels though?).

Digital art museum - a good place to spend a day if you go to Japan in November

Also, your budget will decide what activities you can enjoy here. Can you invest in the Digital Art Museum in Tokyo, or are you going to just stroll around in some of the most colorful neighborhoods and call it a night? Would you like to enjoy a geisha experience in Kyoto, or are you going to just walk around Gion and hope to spot a maiko?

When it comes to the budget, I recommend you read my budget guide for a 2 week trip to Japan. It has all the information on how much we spent and what did we spend it on. Maybe your trip will be longer or shorter than 2 weeks, or maybe you’ll choose a different type of trip, but the prices will help you anyway. Check out this overview to have a rough idea of what the costs could add up to.

I also recommend you to read my post containing 100+ tips on how to travel more for less. I’m sure you’ll find some helpful ideas on how to stretch the almighty dollar, and you’ll benefit from this for any other trip. Also, download this printable PDF with entry fees for various tourist places in Japan, you’ll need it.

Decide on the best time to go

After you have decided on a budget, you’re on to the next item when planning a trip to Japan for the first time: decide when to go. I recommend visiting Japan in November, as it’s the perfect sweet spot between nice weather and decent prices, and it has the bonus of seeing beautiful fall foliage while there.

But there are other options as well. Visiting during the cherry season is the most popular way to do it. You’ll get to enjoy nature’s awakening with the locals and you can see plenty of geisha and maiko shows in Kyoto. As a fun fact, just be aware that the locals enjoy other blossoms as well, and you can take some cool pictures during this season.

The summer months are also a good idea if you’re OK with being quite hot outside but also take into account that this is also typhoon season in Japan. Some people have visited Japan during wintertime and they said it’s lovely, as the winter is mild, and soaking in an onsen when everything is frozen around is a pretty cool experience.

The last two options are the ones that allow for a more conscious budget, but Japan is amazing no matter the season, I can tell you that. As long as you’re aware of what’s coming, you can still enjoy it. Plan ahead, pack accordingly, and enjoy your trip, no matter the season.

Fall foliage view - a must see in this 2 week Japan itinerary for autumn

Research entry criteria

Now that you know when you want to go to Japan, you have to take care of the legal things. Check out if your passport will be valid when you want to go and look for any visa requirements you might have. Make a plan to settle these things way in advance (about 3 months should be enough, more if you have a “complicated” passport).

Choose your itinerary – Where to go in Japan?

Now we’re talking! The best thing about planning a trip, at least for this geek, is to plan a day-by-day itinerary. There’s nothing like reading hundreds of blogs and watching tens of videos. This part of planning a trip is what makes me feel like I have butterflies in my stomach. And it’s my favorite part about this guide about how to prepare for a trip to Japan.

Of course, I have a 2 week Japan itinerary for you. It has all the cool places to visit while on your first visit to Japan, ideas on how to spend your time in Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Osaka, Nara, and so many other cool places, where to see the pretty fall foliage while in Japan and so much more! A pretty basic outline looks like this:

  • Days 1-4: Discover Tokyo
  • Days 5-6: Day trips from Tokyo
  • Day 7: Spend a night at a ryokan
  • Days 8-11: Discover Kyoto
  • Days 12-14: Day trips from Kyoto

You can also download this super helpful PDF that contains all this information more compactly. You can print it and have it in your Japan folder (I know you have one) when you get there, just to have the satisfaction of putting a checkmark next to all the cool things you did already.

What else I can advise you is to not try to push for both Tokyo and Kyoto areas if you’re only staying in Japan for a week. The trip between the 2 takes at least half a day (including hotel check-in and check-out, going to the train station, etc.), and you don’t get to enjoy any of it if you’re in a hurry.

This is a good time to also decide on your activities. I knew for sure I wanted some sort of a geisha experience, but everything else was pretty relaxed, I would say. Some activities you could choose from:

  • experience the geisha culture (see my detailed post about this here);
  • see the Tokyo Skyline from one of the tallest buildings;
  • enjoy dinner at the Robot restaurant;
  • visit the Digital Art Museum;
  • enjoy at least one night at a ryokan;
  • take a walking tour in either Tokyo or Kyoto;
  • sing and dance during a karaoke evening;
  • eat your way through a food tour or cooking class;
  • drive a kart while dressed like Mario (no joke).
Digital art museum - a good place to spend a day if you go to Japan in November

Things to do before going to Japan

We have finally gotten to the most interesting part! Are you ready?

In my tries to make your life easier when learning how to prepare for a trip to Japan, I have split this section into a few smaller sections. I hope it helps!

Book your plane tickets

Things are about to get real! Once you buy the airfare, this trip is happening! Are you excited yet? This is the point when I usually get excited, I must confess.

I recommend Skyscanner for this step, as I’ve used it for a long time before I got into the aviation world. The tool works best when you don’t have fixed dates and you can handle some flexibility, but it can be used as a normal aggregator as well.

What I love about this tool is that you can use it without definite terms and still get results. Let me give you an example: you can search for flights from New York AND nearby airports to all airports in Japan in November.

Say what? Nothing there is fixed; the departure and arrival points and timeframe are not even set. And still, it works. Like this, you can find the cheapest airfare that matches your needs without doing multiple searches.

And this is why you should decide on your itinerary and time to go beforehand. If you know you’re going to include both Tokyo and Osaka in your trip and that it should happen somewhere in April, this tool will help you find the best option to match your criteria and you’ll still make your reservation from the airline’s page.

Book accommodation – where to stay in Japan?

After you have the airfare and your defined itinerary, it’s time you find yourself a place to spend each night. I’m personally not a fan of AirBnB as it creates plenty of issues for the locals, but if you have friends in Japan that could take you in for a night or two I’m sure it’ll be a cool experience. The rest of us just have to use the other options though.

I use both Booking and Agoda to find accommodation, but for Asia I recommend Agoda. I have always found better prices and more options on Agoda and I like their rewards system as well. You can also ask for a quote from the accommodation directly, but you’ll still need a starting point and one of these aggregators is a good place.

You may think of yourself as a hotel or hostel person, but you have more options than these two when going to Japan. I fully recommend a night in a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) and please choose one with an onsen (hot spring). It’s part of the Japanese culture to enjoy a hot spring from time to time and you surely need to do it.

If you can afford a private onsen, to have a private hot tub with a hot spring in your room, and even a view of Mount Fuji included, then go for it and send me pictures so I can envy you for life!

Another special way to spend a night is to book a koyasan (temple lodging) kind of place. They’re not so easy to find as not all temples offer this, but it might be a nice experience to see how the monks are living. Be prepared to eat vegetarian or vegan food and enjoy plenty of silence. It’ll be a nice relaxation when coming from bustling cities like Tokyo or Osaka.

Cozy ryokan room

If you want to have a totally special Japanese experience, go to a capsule hotel for a night. It’s a concept I have only heard of in Japan and it’s like a hostel but with more privacy. You are paying for a room as big as a bed and access to all other amenities like a bathroom and kitchen. Of course, they are extremely clean (like all other types of accommodations, to be frank) and they have rules for quiet times and general common sense.

I can recommend to you the places where we stayed while we were there. The hotel in Kyoto was found using one of my money-saving tips: we bought another hotel with free cancellation until 3 days before arrival. Right before the free cancellation period expired, we checked again and found another hotel that offered us more comfort for the same price as they had a hefty discount attached. My husband loved the massage chair and I still dream of that cool bathtub.

Where we stayed in Japan:

Buy the JR Pass

Now that you know your final itinerary, you may or may not need a JR Pass. Use this simulator to find out if you’re going to need it. If you are, you have to buy this beforehand as you cannot buy it after you land.

Check out here for more information about using the train in Japan and you can also benefit from reading how to use the public transportation and a tram, bus, or metro. These posts should give you a rough idea and you’ll know what to expect.

Order your portable Wi-fi

You cannot survive in Japan without internet. Not only will you need maps and various other apps to be able to get around, but you might also need translation apps from time to time.

You can either buy a SIM card and use an older phone as a hotspot or you can buy a portable Wi-fi. The portable device gives you more flexibility, better speed, and even unlimited data. If you’re in a group, the SIM card will not be enough for you, but for a couple, it worked perfectly fine.

If you decide to use a portable Wi-fi, buy it now from here. You’ll have it waiting for you when you arrive and it’ll make your life easier.

Buy travel insurance

Now, I cannot say that I have always done this, but I’m not a good example. You should learn from my mistakes and always buy travel insurance. I cannot recommend you a specific provider as I’m not familiar with them, but most other bloggers recommend World Nomads and I assume it’s okay if they use it so intensively.

Please also check if there’s any insurance offered by your bank when using their credit or debit card. Some of them have good coverage and this might spare you some money.

Book activities

Having a good idea of what do you need to visit while in Japan will get you far, but in certain situations, you might want to book a few things before you get there. For example, there’s only a limited number of people allowed in the Digital Art Museum at one point, so booking your ticket online can be a good idea if you’re on a tight schedule and cannot afford to wait.

We usually book tours before as well as we want to be sure we have a spot. They tend to keep the number of people to a manageable amount so that they can provide a high-quality tour and they need this information to plan the number of guides to send.

Plenty of people use GetYourGuide to book tours and guides for destinations worldwide. It has all kinds of offers, from free walking tours to day trips with transportation and meals included (take this into account when considering the JR Pass as well) and you can even search for activities in general and get some ideas you haven’t thought of (who knew you could go snorkeling in Japan?). Check out these activities below!

Manage your finances

The used currency in Japan is the Japanese Yen, and you’ll use it while there, as you cannot pay for things in other currencies. The JR Pass can be ordered in dollars as it’s specifically made for tourists, but everything else will be paid in JPY. I always try to pay in the currency of the country I’m traveling to as I always get better exchange rates like this.

Before you go, ensure you have at least two different types of credit/debit cards available and let your bank know you’ll go to Japan to be sure they won’t mark any transactions done in there as theft, in which case they’d block your card. Do some research regarding exchange rates and ATM fees so you won’t be surprised when you get there.

For these particular situations, we usually use Revolut and/or Wise (former Transferwise). We can exchange the money before we get there, even to pay for things in advance while planning the trip, there are no ATM fees for certain amounts of money and the exchange rate is very affordable. It’s also easy to add money from your bank account in case you need more than planned and you can exchange back any left Yen at the end of your trip.

Still, you’ll have to also have some cash with you, as Japan is still very cash-based. Except for shops and restaurants, most places did not accept credit cards. Transportation was mostly paid in cash (which you can add to your Suica or ICoca card) and most of the entry fees as well. Some shops have a limit for credit card payment as well, so you cannot pay by card if you only buy some pastry from a small shop.

Ramen bowl with chopsticks

Research where to eat in Japan

Most people are big fans of Japanese food and some even come here partly just to stuff their faces. I’m not judging, I’m doing the same in Greece. I’m just a very picky eater and I was not a big fan of Japanese food. But again, let me be me and you do you.

If you care a lot about eating the best while you’re there, you should research where to eat when traveling to Japan. Do this especially if you have dietary restrictions of any type, as not all restaurants will be accommodating to your needs.

I only remember a few places where we have eaten and liked the food, as we have also eaten quite a lot from 7-11 and other take-away spots, so I cannot give you that much info about this.

Create your packing list

As you may expect, you need all the information above so you can decide on what to include on your packing list and what to prepare before going to Japan. I have created a separate post about what to pack for a fall trip to Japan, and it includes a PDF you can download to help you plan better. Let me add it here as well so you can have it on the spot.

Of course, your packing list will depend greatly on your time to go, itinerary (the weather changes across the country), and planned activities. It’s also highly dependent on your type of travel, baggage allowance, and some other random things. In any case, I recommend you have this list ready so you can easily go to the next step.

Things to buy before traveling to Japan

As I said, you’ll need a packing list to easily define what you need to buy before going to Japan. The most basic answer would be “everything on the packing list that you don’t own already”. The most obvious ones are the JR Pass and maybe a travel plug adapter, but maybe you also need to buy some slip-on shoes or you’d like to try some solid toiletries for the first time (great idea by the way).

In any case, don’t panic if you forget anything. Except for the JR Pass, everything else can be bought in Japan as well. You can even be tempted to fly in without a checked bag and fly back with two added ones. Japan is a shopping paradise and you can buy some very cool stuff here (blades, kimonos, and chopsticks are the first things to come to mind).

Things to know before traveling to Japan for the first time

Now that you have the logistics ready, try to enjoy the rest of your time until your trip by researching various things to know about Japan. I have two cool articles to recommend: things to know before your trip and myths about Japan and whether they’re true or not. You’ll love all the useful insight you’ll get by reading them.

A few other things will help you feel less like a gaijin (foreigner) and more like a local. You should learn some etiquette rules before traveling to Japan as to not feel like a slob when being surrounded by these very nice and polite people.

While not needed if you go to the most touristy places, a few phrases in Japanese will get you a long way. Try and also have the most important information written in Japanese as well (hotel addresses, critical medical information, dietary restrictions, allergies, etc.). A bilingual map can also be helpful, and you can have some offline maps ready as well (I use Google Maps for this but there are plenty of other apps available).

Mount Fuji - the most iconic view of any trip to Japan

How to prepare for a trip to Japan: key takeaway

I hope you feel less overwhelmed now when planning your trip to Japan for the first time. I get it, traveling to a faraway land with a culture that’s entirely different than yours is never easy. But it’s so worth it! If you wouldn’t want to see new places and meet new cultures, why would you even travel?

Japan is one of those places where you must go at least once. We jokingly say that it’s more like another planet than another country and that there’s Japan and there’s the rest of us. They have their league and none of us can even dream of getting into it.

I hope that now you know how to prepare for a trip to Japan and that you’re confident you’ll have a great trip due to your planning skills. You can also download the printable PDF checklist below, to make it even easier. If only you could plan for the unexpected as well, right?

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