Japan is a unique country to visit in that it offers visitors a colourful mix of traditional culture and history, religion, festivals, breathtaking scenery, mouthwatering food, art, wacky attractions and overwhelming neon city lights. Tokyo boasts the largest and busiest road crossing in the world yet despite the enormous volume of people making their way through the city each day, the population is polite and courteous and everything works in an orderly manner. Japan is by far the easiest and most comfortable country we’ve travelled, not to mention the most fun!
Given that there are endless possibilities of places to see and things to do in Japan, it can be hard to decide where to spend your time during your trip. Here is an extensive guide to our go-to resources for Japan travel inspiration and planning.
Where and when to go
Step one: Figuring out what you want to see and the best time of year to go. Our first ports of call when it comes to planning a trip are usually the trusty travel guidebooks like Lonely Planet and Rough Guides for some basic background information on the country and regions within it. They help to give us a clearer idea on which places we want to visit and how much time we should spend there. In Japan, there are a lot of regional differences in food, landscape, weather, seasonal changes and festivals, so knowing your interests and doing a bit of background research will make planning your itinerary much easier and ultimately you’ll have a better trip! There is truly something for everyone in Japan from food to sporting events (baseball, sumo tournaments), hiking, snow sports, temples, art and manga, cultural and traditional experiences and more. Although it’s easy to get around on public transport in Japan, we highly recommend considering hiring a car or campervan so you have absolute freedom on where to go, especially if you enjoy spending time outdoors.
OUR TIP// Don’t let FOMO get to you! Keep in mind, you can’t do and see it all in one trip so make sure you allow enough time to enjoy each place you visit without having to rush through it all. Trust us, you’ll be back for round two, or even three…
Where to stay
AirBnb: Our favourite way to find and book unique accommodation in Japan. Many of our best experiences overseas have been through connecting with locals, so why not stay with them? There are plenty of options to suit your budget, privacy needs, location and more. Some hostels can also be booked through AirBnB in Japan.
Booking sites, ie: Booking.com, Hostel World: These sites are an easy way to make hostel and hotel bookings and sometimes you can catch good discounts or other perks through them too. It’s always a good idea to compare prices between booking sites and even check if you can book directly through the property before making your booking to ensure you get the best price. If you’re looking for hostels only, we found Hostel World or Hostel Bookers were helpful for finding the best range of backpackers accommodation as a full list won’t always come up on other booking sites.
Couchsurfing: We haven’t tried Couchsurfing ourselves, but have heard a lot of good reviews from friends who’ve tried it all over the world. Given that Japanese people usually have very small living quarters, Couchsurfing in Japan might involve sharing a small space with multiple people, so this might not be your best option depending on how much you value space and privacy.
OUR TIP// Book ahead. In our experience, this is a major advantage in Japan as most places book up months in advance, especially during peak times such as cherry blossom season. This means forward planning is essential if you want a wide choice of accommodation, particularly if you’re looking for budget stays. We recommend booking as far as 3-6 months in advance. I know most backpackers will cringe at this idea given that a lot of us prefer to plan day by day, but we noticed a huge difference in the amount of budget options available to us during our first trip where we booked 3 or more months in advance compared to our recent trip where we only booked about 1 month in advance. If you’re a bit of a commitmentphobe, never fear – most online booking sites will give you the option to cancel your booking for free right up until about a week prior to your arrival date so you can still make some last minute changes to your itinerary without being penalised. If you want complete freedom in Japan, rent a camper and you won’t need to book any accommodation, you can just sleep wherever you park!
Japan travel hacks
Lets get real, you’ll likely experience more than one occasion where you’re completely stumped by a Japanese appliance or how to handle a social situation using proper etiquette. Your first challenge will probably be figuring out how to flush an electric toilet! (Note: Avoid the red assistance button if you don’t want a handful of helpful staff showing up to assist you.) These are a few of our favourite sites to help you figure out what you need to plan ahead for your trip, how to be money savvy in Japan and how to navigate those awkward gaijin (foreigner) situations in Japan. Tokyo/Japan Cheapo, Gaijin Pot, Surviving in Japan without much Japanese.
OUR TIP// Know what you need to do before leaving home. It is, of course possible to just rock up in Japan with no prior planning and still have a pretty decent trip. BUT if you want to really make the most of your time there without spending a fortune, a bit of preplanning will make your experience a whole lot more enjoyable. There are some tickets you’ll have to book before you leave your home country such as a JR Rail Pass and entry to some attractions like the Ghibli museum in Tokyo. Tickets to see Sumo wrestling, baseball games and Universal Studios are also available for purchase online before reaching Japan to avoid missing out when you arrive during busy seasons. Sim cards or pocket wifi are also easier to arrange before leaving home so you can pick them up on arrival and dive straight into your holiday.
What to see and do
Atlas Obscura: Our go-to travel site to get you off the beaten track. Atlas obscura is full of fun, weird and wonderful attractions to visit all over the world but has an extensive list of things to do in Tokyo and Japan (over 180 at our last count!). We’ve been to quite a few of these obscure sites ourselves and love checking them out.
TokyoCheapo and JapanCheapo: This one’s for all our cheapo comrades out there! These sites are fantastic resources for anyone travelling Japan on a budget. They have listings for free/cheap weekly events all over the country, fun area guides, festival information, cultural insights and plenty of suggestions on how to travel Japan on the cheap when it comes to transport, sim cards and more.
Timeout: Timeout isn’t exclusive to Japan but it is a thorough resource for everything that’s happening during your trip. We’ve found some gems through Timeout while travelling in terms of festivals, gallery opens, gigs and more.
AirBnB Experiences: Newly launched service on the AirBnB which allows you to book unique experiences hosted by locals worldwide. Some of the experiences on offer in Tokyo included cooking classes, collector item shopping with a pro, bicycle tours, food tours, culture classes and more.
OUR TIP// Check opening hours. For the love of god, make sure you check the opening days and times of every place you are planning to visit before you go to avoid disappointment! It has become a running joke for us since it has happened so many times in Japan that we’ve travelled for an hour or more to an attraction, shop or café only to arrive and find it closed. Closed days vary between businesses and many traders don’t open until late morning or even afternoon so make sure you’re in the know before you go!
What and where to eat
Adam Liaw: Adam hosted a TV series called Destination Flavour: Japan (available online/Australian SBS), which gave a beautiful and interesting insight into Japanese culture, food history, production and cooking. Having family ties to Japan himself, it’s a very personal perspective and covers major regions throughout Japan all the way from Hokkaido to Okinawa.
Mark Wiens at Migrationology: Another resource for our foodie friends and well worth a look to see Mark’s hilarious reactions to eating delicious foods alone (you’ll understand once you’ve seen it). Mark and his wife document their worldwide travels (including Japan) to eat tasty local foods and you’ll get to see him try anything you’re too afraid or squeamish to eat yourself. They also publish some great blogs, food and travel guides to help you find the most delicious morsels on your trip.
OUR TIP// Honestly, it’s hard to go wrong with the food in Japan – it’s all so delicious. Our best advice is don’t be scared to try new things! We were far more open minded when it came to trying new foods our second time in Japan and we were blown away by most of the things we ate. If you’re feeling a bit timid you can ease yourself into the Japanese food scene by starting off at restaurants with English menus. After becoming a bit more familiar with the popular foods served, branch out to other izakaya and food vendors that may not have English menus. In case of emergency you can always use Google translate!
Meet people and make new friends
Meetup.com: Whether you want to practice your Japanese language skills over a beer or nerd out over your favourite movies and comics with some new buddies, there are groups organising regular catchups all over the world on meetup.com.
Couchsurfing: Even if you don’t use Couchsurfing for accommodation, it’s still a good online platform to meet new locals and travellers in the area and arrange catchups.
TokyoCheapo: Not just a great travel resource for Tokyo and Japan, they also run monthly meet ups for those looking for new friends in Tokyo.
OUR TIP// Although it’s a little daunting to put yourself out there in unfamiliar places, especially in Japan where English is not that widely spoken, it’s worth the initial discomfort to meet some really wonderful people. Whether they are your accommodation hosts, staying or working at your hostel, making you coffee at the local café or are behind the bar at your favourite izakaya, most Japanese people are really friendly and will happily try to overcome the language barrier with you if you break the ice with a smile and greeting. We’ve made some friends we will have for life in Japan and they are a big part of why we want to keep going back to experience more and more of the country.