Japan: Visiting the Country of Modernity and Tradition

The fact that tipping is not customary in Japan does little to mitigate the country’s reputation as an eye-wateringly costly place to visit, with Tokyo and Osaka occupying the top two spots on the Economist’s 2013 list of the world’s most expensive cities. The rewards, however, are phenomenal, with outstanding transport, a wide variety of hotels, and world-renowned dining. Visitors from North America do not require a visa, and many of the logistics can be taken care of before leaving home.

Much of the planning for a trip to Japan can be taken care of before setting off.

How to Plan a Trip to Japan?

Travel in Style

International airlines fly into Tokyo, Osaka or Nagoya. Keep in mind Japan is on the other side of the Date Line, so you lose a day when traveling from the U.S. Book with Japan Airlines or Air Nippon and you can incorporate a Japan Rail Pass into the price of the ticket. The Japan Rail Pass offers unlimited travel on Japanese Railways and JR buses. The pass only is available to foreigners and must be booked online before arrival. Japan’s train system is famously fast and efficient and is the best way to get around not least for the chance to ride the famed Shikansen bullet train linking Tokyo with Nagoya, Osaka, Kyoto and others. Use buses for travel to the remoter areas, but there are long-distance overnight buses between major cities, which have reclining seats and restrooms.

Affordable Accommodation

Finding a place to stay need not break the budget. While there are hundreds of luxury brand-name hotels at the top end of the market, the cheaper option is to choose from Japan’s 58,000 or so family-run Ryokan (JNTO). Guests typically sleep in an undivided room with straw matting, sliding screens and minimal furniture. Youth hostels are an option, with more than 300 to choose from, charging a fixed overnight fee. Open to all ages, hostels provide beds in shared dormitories. You can book online in advance with the Japan Hotel Association or the Japan Ryokan and Hotel Association.

What to See

Although Japan comprises more than 6,000 islands ,most of them uninhabited, the bulk of the action is concentrated in Honshu. Honshu is the largest and most populated of the four main islands, which include Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu. Head to Honshu for the big cities, including Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, or to launch a hiking assault on Mount Fuji. Hokkaido, whose capital is Sapporo, has more countryside and national parks, and is worth including if exploring nature is a priority. Shikoku attracts the fewest tourists for its Buddhist temples and hot-spring spas, whereas Kyushu’s tropical climate, volcanoes and hot springs make it worth including on a longer itinerary especially since there are fast, direct rail links from Honshu to Fukuoka, the largest city.

When to Go

As Frommer’s points out, Japan spans 1,800 miles from top to bottom, the same distance as Maine to Florida. It is possible to visit year-round and find a variety of conditions. As a general rule, though, rainy season is in June and typhoon season is from August to September. According to Lonely Planet, peak tourist season when air fares are highest runs from July to August and during December. To catch the famed cherry-blossom season, you need to be there from mid-March to May, depending on the region.

What to Bring

The easiest way to withdraw money is to use a standard U.S. credit or debit card at the plentiful supply of ATMs, since American Express and personal checks are almost nonexistent in Japan. A vital addition to the packing case is an adapter for charging phones, cameras and laptops since Japan uses a 100-volt system with different cycles according to region. Given that communication is a common source of anxiety, a phrase book may make ordering food and getting around easier, although English is widely understood in the big cities.

How Much Money Should You Bring to Japan?

Don’t Depend on Credit Cards

“Japan is mainly a cash society,” notes the website of the British government’s Foreign Office, warning travelers that credit and debit cards issued outside of Japan aren’t widely accepted. Both the U.S. and British governments advise travelers to check in advance to see if their credit and debit cards will be accepted in Japan, and to ensure they have alternative sources of money.

Daily Expenses Vary Greatly

According to the travel guide “Lonely Planet: Japan,” travelers should expect to pay around 8,000 yen per person to stay in a business-class hotel and 2,500 yen for a mid-range meal. However, the guide notes that Japan’s reputation as an expensive country can be deceiving, pointing out that a fixed-price lunch or dinner meal can cost between 700 to 900 yen. The website Japan-Guide advises budgeting between 6,000 to 12,000 yen per day for “medium budget” travel.

Bottom Line

While the specific amount of money travelers will need varies greatly, the ability to access it is more important. Ensure before leaving that you will have access to sufficient cash reserves to cover your expenses, whatever they may be

What to Pack for Japan?

As a travel destination, Japan is well-endowed. With booming urban centers, quiet landscape gardens, renowned fine arts and excellent dining, Japan has a varied mix of cultural experiences that really make the trip worthwhile. To get the most out of your travels, planning and packing appropriately are crucial, especially when visiting a country that is distinctive in customs and traditions.

May is the perfect month to see Japan’s famous cherry blossoms.

May Climate

May is an ideal month to visit Japan. Depending on your destinations in Japan, weather can change drastically, so it is best to double check the forecast for your travel days while packing. Daytime high temperatures range from the low 60s to the high 70s Fahrenheit, making it quite pleasant, particularly for outdoor activities such as walking and hiking. Hokkaido, in northern Japan, is a bit cooler. While Okinawa, to the south, is rainier. In May, you can expect plant life to be lush, especially the cherry blossom tree, which is Japan’s unofficial national flower.


Considering the comfortable May weather, it’s best to bring clothes that layer well. Cotton T-shirts and long-sleeved shirts are ideal. Evenings can be a bit brisk, so be sure to take sweaters or a light jacket. Raincoats will come in handy for occasional showers. For general clothing, stick to a smart but casual look. Jeans are not typically worn by adults. In Tokyo, the color scheme is mostly black and gray, so if you’re looking to blend in, it’s best to stay away from flashy colors. Under all circumstances, pack clothes that are clean and proper because shabby dress is usually inappropriate for any restaurants or temples you’ll be visiting.


One of the customs of Japan is taking off your shoes before entering into temples, shrines, traditional restaurants and homes. Pack shoes that you can put on and take off easily, especially without laces. Women can wear high heels, but considering the amount of time you’ll be walking, flats will be far more comfortable. While sandals are also acceptable, it is better to pack good, sturdy walking shoes. When packing socks, check for holes. You don’t want to take off your shoes at a formal location only to have holes in your socks because this is a sign of shabbiness.

Additional Items

Because of sporadic rain showers during May, a compact umbrella would likely come in handy. In many restaurants and cafes, tissues and napkins are usually not given to customers. So bring a few packs of tissues to keep in your day-pack. You’ll also find that public restrooms do not provide paper towels, so pack some small, reusable washcloths. Buy a few small bottles of hand sanitizing gels for your bag because many public restrooms also don’t have soap available.


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