At ViaHero, our local travel planners are excited to answer all your questions about travel in Cuba, Iceland, and Japan. We’re so excited about our recent Japan launch and all the Heroes (travel planners) coming on board that we want to give you a brief guide to the basics of travel in Japan. It’s a country that can seem confusing because Japanese characters look nothing like our own alphabet, Tokyo is the largest city in the world, and everyone comes back to the U.S. talking about the steep learning curve with the toilets. But getting past these things is enormously rewarding. Japan is home to some of the best food in the world, the fastest trains, and hundreds of relaxing hot springs. Here’s what you need to know to start planning your dream trip to Japan.
All Americans really need for a short trip to Japan is a valid passport. What makes it valid? Your passport must not expire for at least three months after your date of entry into Japan and it must have a blank page available for an entry stamp.
Proof of onward travel is also a good idea. Most of the time you won’t be asked for it. But if you can, have a confirmation for your plane or boat ticket out of Japan available at customs.
When you pass through customs you’ll be photographed and fingerprinted. It’s just standard procedure for the temporary visitor visa granted at customs (denoted by your entry stamp).
Purchase a Plane Ticket
There are eighty regular, direct flights from the U.S. to Japan so it’s easy to find the right route for you at a competitive price. You’ll find the most flights from Honolulu (22 direct flights), Los Angeles (9 direct flights), San Diego (9 direct flights), New York – JFK (6 direct flights), and Chicago – O’Hare (6 direct flights). If it’s convenient, then start looking for flights from these cities to get the best prices. Searching for flights on Skyscanner or Google Flights can help you see all the options on numerous airlines so you can get the best combination of routes and prices.
Book a Place to Stay
From super luxury hotels to quirky hostels to minimalist Airbnbs there are so many cool places to stay in Japan that it can be a tad overwhelming. While you could head over to Airbnb or TripAdvisor to start searching, it’s even easier to delegate the task. Travel writer Matt can help you find the coolest places to stay on your budget and help fill your days with adventure activities and good eats. Or Kelsey can tell you all about a hidden resort with beautiful hot springs.
Start looking for your temporary home with these three wonderful places to stay in Japan:
- Tawaraya – This ryokan (traditional hotel) in Kyoto has been in operation for three centuries! The service, the food, and the atmosphere are all incredible.
- Hōmeikan – For cheap accommodations in Tokyo, this is one of the most relaxing hostel options. It’s in a residential neighborhood and has the feel of a traditional Japanese inn.
- Traditional House: Tatami Room – This Airbnb in Osaka was built by the owner’s grandparents. Everything is done in the traditional Japanese style. You’ll sleep on the traditional futon mattresses on the floor.
It’s easy to exchange money in Japan or even withdraw it using your debit card at an ATM. You can exchange your dollars for Japanese Yen at the airport (though you’ll likely incur higher exchange fees), post offices, banks, and some large hotels. Cash is the preferred method of payment most places, so make sure you have plenty at all times. Your debit and credit cards will work, but you must call your bank in advance to let them know you’re traveling and to ask about any fees for using your card overseas.
Japan’s cities are well-served by public trains and buses; most locals use these exclusively. If you’re sticking to the cities, there’s no need to rent a car in Japan. You can zip easily between cities on bullet trains and slower, local trains that crisscross the country. You can reach most small towns by train or bus and take taxis once you arrive. To save money on train travel, consider a Japan Rail Pass.
Japan is bursting with great places to eat. We could go on and on giving great recommendations for sushi, ramen, desserts, and more. But local experts really know where to eat. ViaHero travel planner Eric can point you to some of the best hidden gems in Tokyo like a tiny Japanese curry place where you’re basically eating in the kitchen and everyone who enters is treated like a long-time friend. Matt, on the other hand, can help you navigate Ramen Town where all the up and coming Ramen chefs are cooking these days.
Here are a few dishes to make sure you try in Japan:
- Sushi – raw fish and rice with vinegar
- Unagi – river eel with barbecue sauce (only in season May to October)
- Shabushabu – thinly sliced meat that you cook yourself in hot broth in just seconds
- Okonomiyaki – grilled pancakes stuffed with savory things like pork and cabbage
- Soba – buckwheat noodles served either in broth or with a light sauce, served with a variety of toppings
- Yakitori – grilled chicken with a sweet and salty sauce
Other Important Tidbits
- Language: Japanese is a difficult language, but learning a few phrases and characters will serve you well. There are signs in English in tourist areas and in most train stations, but it can be hard to find someone who speaks English.
- Internet: Get the Japan Connected-free Wi-Fi app to get access to free tourist Wi-Fi hotspots all over the country. There are paid hotspots throughout the country, too, and internet cafes where you can use a computer with the internet for a few hundred yen per hour ($1USD is about 110 yen).
- Bow when you greet someone, thank them and say good-bye
- Slurping noodles and soup is a sign that you’re enjoying your meal
- Take off your shoes before entering homes, temples, shrines, or anywhere else you see others removing their shoes
- Don’t blow your nose in public
- Don’t eat while walking around
How Our Heroes Can Help
If you’re still feeling a bit unsure about your trip to Japan, our travel planners can put your mind at ease and plan a custom itinerary for you. Just head over to ViaHero.com and input your travel preferences. Let us know whether food is important to you and what kind – coffee, street food, fine dining? Do you like museums, concerts, beaches, nightlife? Tell us and we’ll match you with a Hero who is an expert in the things you love to do when you travel. Book your Hero to help you with recommendations for things to do, logistics (like flights and hotels), or both! You’ll hear from them quickly to get started planning. They can send you a full trip plan in under a week.
Meet the Heroes
Matt, a professional travel writer, is a Hero based in Tokyo. He’s been living in Japan for years and is obsessed with showing visitors the best of the country. Matt says of his travel style, “My priorities for a good holiday in Japan are eating well, staying in a good Japanese traditional hotel (ryokan), and having adventures finding new places and meeting new people.” He’ll help you do all those things on your trip.
Zoe is a Taiwanese expat based in Tokyo with an obsession for finding hidden gems. If you want to get off the beaten path, Zoe has got your back. Zoe shares, “My favorite places are tiny spaces that can be found within any city. A tiny park with blooming sakuras during Sakura season that people miss because it’s not on a busy street. Or that hole-in-the-wall okonimiyaki joint that serves cheap good food with a bottle of beer.”
Our crew of Japan Heroes is growing, so if neither Zoe nor Matt sound like your perfect match, don’t worry. There are more travel planners available! Each one has his or her own style and preferences when it comes to recommendations, but all of them are experts in logistics and the nuances of travel in Japan.