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Essential Things To Know Before Traveling To Japan in 2024

Tokyo Japan

Are you looking for a complete Japan travel guide? Don't go any further!

Our recent visit to Japan in the fall of 2023 deepened our appreciation for this captivating country. While the internet offers a wealth of information already, experiencing Japan firsthand has led us to compile a highly curated list of insights that would immensely benefit fellow travelers preparing to explore this incredible destination in 2024.

Table of Contents

  1. Tips from everyone, for everyone
  2. All things related to Japan itinerary and its quirky attractions
  3. Practical tips for visiting Japan
  4. What to buy while in Japan + financial matters
  5. Foods and cafes you shouldn’t miss
  6. Where to stay (miniguide to Tokyo neighborhoods included)
  7. How to get around Japan?
  8. What else is important to know?
  9. Dos and don'ts in Japan
  10. How many weeks is enough for Japan?

Tips from everyone, for everyone

shinkansen inside

While we were in Japan, we reconfirmed that essential preparations for a trip extend far beyond basic language skills. While mastering a few local phrases proves invaluable (you'll feel quite uncomfortable without knowing any Japanese), our compiled list covers essential advice that resonates with travelers — and that we gathered ourselves.

Here's a compilation of commonly shared things to know before visiting Japan, before we delve into our personalized observations:

  • Money etiquette: Tipping isn't customary, and handing over money directly isn't common either. Plastic baskets or trays are often used for transactions. In stores and cafes, self-service devices for payments are prevalent, requiring customers to manage their transactions independently.
  • Language Challenges: While Tokyo's English proficiency has seen improvement post-Olympics, the general usage of English in Japan remains limited. Communication often involves creative gestures, Google Translate, or the entertaining game of charades to bridge language gaps.
  • Restroom Quirks: One of the simplest but oddest curiosities you should know before traveling to Japan. Japan's toilets can be high-tech and puzzling at times. Familiarizing yourself with the control panel or carrying your phone to locate the flush button amidst various functions can save you from unexpected surprises!
  • Scarcity of Garbage Bins: Public garbage cans aren't a common sight, except in convenience stores which often serve as reliable disposal spots at almost every corner.
  • Public Transportation: While public transport is widely used, it can be a little bit complicated and confusing for newcomers. However, navigating Japan's efficient train and subway systems is highly recommended despite initial unfamiliarity.
  • No Smoking Zones: Japan has strict no-smoking policies in public areas, so adhering to designated smoking areas is crucial to avoid penalties.
  • Compact Living Spaces: Expect compact hotel rooms and apartments in Japan. Embracing minimalism and efficient use of space defines the accommodation experience.
  • ATM Card Compatibility: Beware of potential card compatibility issues with ATMs. This, unfortunately, happened to us: One card out of two didn't work, neither for offline payments nor for online transactions on Japanese sites (when we tried to book last-minute sightseeing tickets).
  • Debating the JR Pass: While the Japan Rail Pass often deemed the best answer on how to travel around Japan, it may not suit every traveler's itinerary and budget, a point we'll discuss further down in the article.

It's fascinating how these unique aspects significantly shape the travel experience in Japan. Let’s now delve into all things to know before traveling to Japan in 2024!

Side note: Beware, we have quite a lot of tips — after all, during our last trip to Japan (almost month-long!), we've settled in quite comfortably! If you are planning a trip to Japan in 2024, continue reading.

What to see in Japan?

dotonbori street osaka

Japan is renowned for its iconic scenes — temples steeped in history, the ethereal beauty of sakura, and the majestic Mount Fuji. But let's break away from the stereotypes and dive into the lesser-known gems that made our trip truly unique:

  • Exploring the enchanting world of Harry Potter at the theme park,
  • spotting whimsical Pokémon-inspired manholes on the streets,
  • and uncovering practical tips that will transform your journey into a seamless adventure.

These tips will also enhance your comfort as you immerse yourself in the beauty of Japan. When it comes to things to see in Tokyo, and interesting things about Japan, these experiences redefine the essence of this incredible country from a new viewpoint.

Anime and all things kawaii

Anime and all things kawaii

No matter how many times I've stepped foot in Japan, the delightful surprises never cease. Imagine yourself arriving at Osaka airport and being greeted by these whimsical, pink-colored toy booths at passport control. It's an instant mood-lifter!

But that's just the beginning of the kawaii wonders that Japan effortlessly weaves into daily life. Road signs take the form of charming bunnies, bank logos sport adorable Shiba Inu doggos, and subway ads are alive with colorful anime characters. ‘Kawaii' isn't just a style — it's a feeling that wraps you up in its playful, endearing embrace, making even the most routine moments brim with cheer and a touch of magic.

Rooftop gardens

Rooftop gardens close to Uniqlo

This time around, what really caught our attention amidst Tokyo's reputation as a concrete jungle was the surprising abundance of greenery. It's astounding how the city is teeming with nature — parks at every turn, trees, and even potted flowers peeking out from behind the most unexpected corners. Everywhere we glanced, our eyes were met with lush greenery. But the real showstoppers? Those rooftop park-gardens atop skyscrapers and shopping centers!

Sprawling gardens high above the bustling city offer not just a breath of fresh air but also spectacular views. And guess what? Most of these rooftop gardens have free entrance, completely free! It's fascinating to see locals flocking to these green havens during their lunch breaks, soaking in the tranquility amid the urban chaos.

Among our favorites were:
✔️ Ginza Six, with a view on an impressive 13-story Uniqlo
✔️ and Shibuya Parco in Tokyo.

And let's not forget Abeno Harukas in Osaka, where the 18th-floor outdoor garden is a hidden gem, almost rivaling the popular observation deck at the building's summit. There's something magical about these elevated oases — a serene escape from the city buzz with an added bonus of breathtaking vistas.

Momiji season and sakura season

sakura season sakura season 2

Ah, the seasons of vibrant hues and fleeting beauty in Japan — the Momiji (autumn foliage) season and the Sakura (cherry blossom) season — each weaving its own spellbinding tapestry across the country.

During the Momiji season, Japan transforms into a breathtaking canvas painted with hues of red, orange, and gold as the autumn foliage adorns the landscapes.

  • I remember wandering through Kyoto's Arashiyama district, surrounded by fiery maple trees. The air was crisp, carrying the aroma of fallen leaves, while every step revealed nature's artistry at its finest. It was a serene and almost ethereal experience, strolling through temples and gardens amidst this vibrant display of colors.

As for the Sakura season, it's a time of anticipation and wonder. Locals say that the best place to see the cherry blossoms is in Tokyo's Ueno Park. The delicate pink petals against a backdrop of blue sky and ancient temples creates a scene straight out of a dream. There's an undeniable magic in picnicking under these blossoms, joining locals and fellow travelers in celebrating the ephemeral beauty of nature.

Both seasons hold a unique charm, inviting you to savor fleeting moments of nature's grandeur.

Tokyo Disneyland

Tokyo Disneyland

The ultimate answer to the question of what to do in Tokyo with kids is paying a visit to Disneyland!

Tokyo Disney Resort stands as a vibrant entertainment hub in Japan's capital, boasting two distinct amusement parks — Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea — alongside hotels, shops, theaters, and a plethora of themed recreational spaces.

For first-time adventurers planning a visit to Tokyo Disneyland, the official website is a treasure trove of indispensable information and expert tips. It covers everything from navigating your way to the park and suggested itineraries to rainy day activities and notifications about attraction closures on specific dates.

A one-day ticket, known as the “One Day Passport,” grants access to either Disneyland or DisneySea (Tokyo Disneyland Seaside) for a day of enchantment.

Here's a breakdown of the ticket prices:

  • Adults: Starting from 7,900¥ (or $53)
  • Adolescents (12-17 years old): Starting from 6,600¥ (or $45)
  • Children (4-11 years old): Starting from 4,700¥ (or $32)

Even though visitors are usually thrilled with the breathtaking rides and the atmosphere of their favorite children's fairy tales, the shared frustration comes from the snaking queues that practically beg parkgoers to opt for fast-track passes. These passes, typically ranging from $50 to $100 per person, offer a shortcut through the endless lines, ensuring more rides and less waiting.

Better buy tickets in advance on Klook

Osaka's Universal Studios

Osaka Universal Studios Nintendo World

Universal Studios Japan in Osaka stands as a premier theme park since its grand opening on March 31, 2001. Part of the NBC Universal family, this park joins the esteemed ranks alongside its counterparts in Los Angeles, Orlando, and Singapore.

With an annual footfall of 12 million visitors, Universal Studios Osaka reigns as one of the globe's most frequented entertainment hubs, drawing enthusiasts from across the world. The most popular attractions at Osaka's Universal Studios include The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the thrilling rides like The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, and the entertaining shows featuring beloved characters (Snoopy and Hello Kitty are rumored to gather crowds).

As for the park prices in 2024, here's a breakdown:

  • Adults (12 years and up): Starting from 8,600¥ (or $60)
  • Children (4-11 years old): Starting from 5,600¥ (or $40)
  • Seniors (over 65): Starting from 7,700¥ (or $50)

Do note that prices tend to rise during weekends and public holidays. So, planning your visit accordingly might help you secure the best deals for an exhilarating experience at Universal Studios Osaka!

You can purchase tickets on Klook

Warner Bros. Harry Potter Park

And hold onto your wizarding hats for the newest addition to Japan’s fun destinations — Harry Potter Park in Tokyo that was opened just in June, 2023! Booking tickets for this highly anticipated park has become an epic saga in itself for us. Tickets for this thrill-seeker's paradise must be secured a whopping three months in advance.

Here's the kicker: When we visited in late September for a month-long adventure, we immediately scrambled to book tickets, only to find that the earliest availability wasn't until December. The demand is off the charts, making it a challenge to secure a coveted spot for this attraction.

As for the ticket prices:

  • Adults: 6,300¥ (or $40)
  • Adolescents (12-17 years old): 5,200¥ (or $35)
  • Children (4-11 years old): 3,800¥ (or $25)

The park, which is one big attraction in itself, includes sets of the Hogwarts School of Magic (a moving staircase, the Great Hall with a magical ceiling), the atrium of the Ministry of Magic, the Dursleys' house and other rooms shown in the movie saga. There are also vehicles, figures of magical creatures, statues of wizards and other attributes, thanks to which visitors can imagine themselves in the world created by J.K. Rowling.

You can buy tickets in advance on Klook

Animal cafes

Animal owl cafe

Animal cafes have carved out a niche in Japan's vibrant cafe culture, offering unique experiences for animal lovers. Did you know the very first neko (cat) cafe opened its doors in Osaka back in 2004? A trendsetter indeed! And not to be outdone, Tokyo made its mark by introducing the first hedgehog cafe, Harry's, in 2016, housing around 30 of these adorable spiky creatures.

In the bustling metropolis of Tokyo, several neko cafes have gained quite the following among enthusiasts. Here are the top four favorites:

  • Neko Jalala
  • Neko-maru
  • Calico
  • Calaugh

These cafes have garnered popularity for providing cozy spaces where patrons can sip their favorite beverages while enjoying the company of furry feline friends. Each cafe offers its unique ambiance and charm, creating a haven for cat aficionados seeking a purr-fectly delightful experience amidst their favorite animals. But if you've had enough of kitties (or if your allergies are acting up), don’t fret: There are cafes in Japan with more exotic animals, such as snakes and penguins! They're definitely worth visiting!

Hidden Pokémons

Pokemon Store

Without a doubt, Japan's manholes are an unexpectedly delightful canvas, each city painting its own unique story through these humble sewer covers. But here's the exciting twist — hidden amidst these artistic treasures are Pokémon-themed manholes scattered across Japan! They're not in the bustling city centers but rather waiting to be discovered on the outskirts, adding a thrilling element to exploring Japan.

You can unearth these hidden gems using a special map dedicated to these Pokémon manholes. It's like embarking on a treasure hunt, except the treasure is adorable Pokémon-themed manholes! Gotta catch ‘em all!

  • We stumbled upon one such manhole in Ueno Park while exploring Tokyo, and it was a pleasant surprise. Although, we couldn't help but feel a pang of regret upon realizing we missed a second one nearby, as indicated on the map. Pokémon's allure knows no bounds, right?

And speaking of collecting, Japan has another charming tradition — stamp collecting! It's a free, immersive experience often found at train stations and attractions. All you need is some paper or, even better, a dedicated notebook for this adventure. We got ourselves a stunning stamp at the free observation deck of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, capturing a moment of our journey in a unique and tangible way. It's these little treasures that make exploring Japan an endlessly fascinating experience!

Out of town

from tokyo to fuji mountain

Get outside the cities! Choosing a hiking trail off the beaten path led us to the breathtaking Kamikochi Valley, nestled in the Northern Alps of Japan. It's a gem not as renowned as Mount Fuji, yet it boasts its own allure and stunning vistas.

This slice of Nagano Prefecture remains open for exploration from April to mid-November, offering a serene escape surrounded by postcard-perfect views of mountains and rivers. Unlike bustling tourist hubs, Kamikochi has a limited tourist infrastructure, with a handful of cozy hotels and stores, allowing nature to take center stage.

The trails here weave through a tapestry of natural beauty, and the scenic route along the famed Taisho Pond is a highlight. Expect enchanting encounters with diverse wildlife, from various bird species to playful wild monkeys. And if you don't mind the crowds, visiting during fall treats you to a mesmerizing display of vibrant foliage.

Accessing this natural wonderland is fairly convenient — opting for the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo is the smoothest route to the northern part of Nagano. From there, trains connect to central Nagano, including Matsumoto, departing from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo and Nagoya in Aichi Prefecture. Additionally, intercity buses conveniently link Nagano with numerous cities across Japan, ensuring diverse access points for eager adventurers.

Hiking in Japan is an activity that offers most ROI, so if you want to delve deeper into the topic, we have quite a substantial amount of info for you to discover.

Practical tips for visiting Japan

fuji mountain trip

Now we want to share a few practical tips. And let's start with specific places to visit in Japan and where you can book the best tour.

Where to book tickets?

Booking in advance has become our go-to strategy when exploring Japan, especially for those “hot” items like the Harry Potter Park. Three months might seem like a stretch, but trust me, securing those tickets in advance is worth every bit of effort.

We've found Klook to be a lifesaver for excursions and ticket bookings. The platform is almost like a traveler's best friend in Japan, and those banners scattered around Tokyo and Osaka seem like friendly reminders to check out their offerings.

  • When we skipped renting a car, Klook came through with exceptional tours from different cities. Our Mount Fuji adventure from Tokyo ($130 for a couple) was an all-in-one package — Mount Fuji, Lake Kawaguchi, Oshino Hakkai, and Gotemba, giving us a comprehensive Fuji experience without the hassle of figuring out transportation.
  • Hokkaido's natural wonders amazed us on another Klook tour ($120 for a couple) that covered Noboribetsu, Lake Toya, and Lake Shikotsu. It was a day immersed in Hokkaido's serene beauty.
  • And oh, the historic charm of Nara and Kyoto! Klook's Nara Day Tour from Osaka ($140 for a couple) was an absolute treat. From ancient temples to serene gardens, it was a perfect day steeped in history.

Honestly, relying on Klook's tours not only simplified our planning but also added depth to our exploration of Japan, letting us savor its diverse landscapes and cultural richness with ease.

Other activities that you absolutely MUST book in advance if you’re planning to have a grand ol’ time in Japan include a visit to TeamLab Planets Museum (¥3800 / $25) and Shibuya Sky Observation Deck (¥2200 / $15) in Tokyo.

Check the opening hours

tokyo observation deck shinjuku

Checking Google Maps for a place's operating hours has become our golden rule in Japan, even for seemingly regular weekdays. It's surprising how the rhythm of these establishments can differ from what we're accustomed to.

We've stumbled upon charming, off-the-beaten-path traditional restaurants, only to find them closed — this fact especially noticeable in Osaka's Tsutenkaku Tower neighborhood, where Wednesdays seem to be their unofficial day off. Additionally, it's not uncommon for eateries to take a break between 2 and 3 p.m. or remain closed until 5 or 6 p.m., which was the case for Osaka's renowned okonomiyaki joint, Fukutaro. It's almost like they have their own schedules, dancing to a different beat than the regular clockwork.

So, while spontaneity is thrilling, it pays off to peep at Google Maps and confirm the opening hours, ensuring you don't find yourself standing in front of a closed door, still craving a delicious meal. These quirks are part of Japan's charm, adding a layer of anticipation and surprise to each culinary adventure.

Restrooms

Restrooms in Japan Restrooms in Japan 2

Japan's restrooms are a testament to functionality and aesthetics combined! They're free, impeccably clean, and often tucked into the cityscape like pieces of art. Yet, figuring out the flush button can sometimes feel like a whimsical puzzle.

Unlike the familiar large and prominent flush buttons we're used to, Japan's toilet buttons often sport a more discreet design. It's a treasure hunt to find the right one! In hotels or shopping centers, you might spot explanations or arrows, but in public toilets, these helpful hints are a rarity. That's where having a trusty interpreter, or a translator app, becomes a lifesaver.

Taking a trip to a Japanese restroom without this “interpreter” might lead to some amusing guesswork or, worst-case scenario, a hilarious adventure in deciphering flush mechanisms. It's a little quirk that adds a touch of unpredictability to an otherwise mundane task!

Japan's little oddities

10 yen pancake osaka

What to know before going to Japan? Two fascinating interesting facts that stand out are the shoe etiquette and the subtle placement of almost everything on the left.

Firstly, the shoe rule is a staple of Japanese culture — take off your shoes before stepping into someone's home, certain restaurants, temples, and even fitting rooms in Zara and the like. It's a sign of respect and cleanliness, preserving the sanctity of indoor spaces. You'll often find neatly arranged shoe racks or designated areas to store your footwear before entering.

Secondly, many things seem to lean left in Japan. From escalators to pedestrian pathways and even traffic signage, there's a slight favoritism towards the left. It's like a subtle dance choreography guiding people in a harmonious flow, adding a touch of rhythm to daily life.

Safety

street in Tokyo

When you're in Japan, you don’t need to care about your possessions too much. Japan's safety levels are indeed remarkable and can create a sense of ease and comfort that's hard to match elsewhere. The level of trust in public spaces is extraordinary; leaving belongings unattended for a moment feels oddly natural. The meticulous adherence to order and respect for personal property foster an environment where safety seems like an inherent part of everyday life.

The contrast after leaving Japan is striking. Suddenly, the awareness of safeguarding personal belongings intensifies, and the outside world's imperfections become more apparent. It's like stepping from a meticulously crafted haven into a reality where vigilance becomes the norm again. Japan's safety standards set a high bar, making one appreciate the unique tranquility experienced within its borders.

What to buy in Japan?

Pokemon in Japan

Japan offers a plethora of items that are not only high-quality but also often more affordable or unique compared to other places:

  • Electronics: Bic Camera and Yodobashi Camera are paradise for electronics, offering a vast range of cameras, smartphones (like iPhones), laptops, and gadgets, often at competitive prices.
  • Fashion and Footwear: Sneakers and trendy streetwear can be found in various stores, with some exclusive releases resorted to places like Harajuku's atmos or Shibuya's ABC Mart. Luxury brands, while priced similarly, offer tax-free shopping, making it a smart purchase for visitors. Keep reading to learn more about the ways you can spend a lot but still get some of that cash back!
  • Japanese Cosmetics: The beauty industry in Japan is highly regarded for its quality. Japanese skincare and makeup brands offer unique products like collagen supplements, skincare by Shiseido, and cosmetics by brands like Shu Uemura or SK-II. Tsubaki haircare products and masks are highly popular for their quality and effectiveness.
  • Local Snacks and Sweets: Meiji's collagen supplements, Muji's snacks and confections, including matcha-flavored treats and traditional sweets, make for delightful souvenirs.
  • Stationery: Itoya is a haven for stationery enthusiasts, offering an extensive collection of pens, notebooks, and art supplies, perfect for those fond of calligraphy or bullet journaling.

Visitors often fill their suitcases with these items as they are not only of excellent quality but also offer a unique touch of Japan, making for cherished mementos or gifts. Plus, taking advantage of the tax-free shopping for luxury brands adds an extra incentive for certain purchases.

Financial matters

Japan yen

Having cash on hand is vital in Japan, despite its high-tech reputation. Surprisingly, certain places like subway stations and many cafes and attractions only accept cash. However, in a post-pandemic landscape, there's a shift towards some places accepting cards exclusively.

When it comes to digital payment methods like Apple Pay, they often cater to local bank cards only, making it slightly less accessible for travelers using international cards.

For currency exchange, we found it convenient to exchange dollars or euros for yen at exchange offices, which are easy to find through Google Maps. Just a heads-up, exchanging money in ATMs without personnel can sometimes come with exorbitant rates, especially in certain districts like Akihabara. In these areas, the machines cater to the gaming crowd seeking yen for the retro game shops, but the exchange rates might not be favorable.

If an emergency requires cash, exchange machines can be a last resort, but it's ideal to rely on proper exchange offices for a better deal.

Travelers’ lifesaver

Tax Free in Japan

Japan's tax-free system is indeed a game-changer for travelers, available almost everywhere, from clothing and tech stores to even convenience stores like 7/11. It's an effortless process — a tax amount is deducted right at the cash register, so that you can enjoy a delightful 10% discount without jumping through any additional hoops.

While the Apple Store might not offer tax-free benefits, most other retailers readily accommodate this feature. What's fantastic is that you don't need to trek to the airport for the refund. The deduction happens right at the point of purchase or, in some large shopping centers, by collecting receipts and visiting a designated floor for the tax refund. It's an incredibly streamlined process!

Vintage lover’s paradise

Vintage in Japan

Exploring Japan's vintage store scenes can feel like stumbling into a fashion time capsule, especially in places like Harajuku and Shimokitazawa in Tokyo (with Harajuku Chicago Jingumae and New York Joe shops being the highlights of our personal fashion-forward outings) or Amerikamura in Osaka (you cannot bypass Kinji used clothing if you’re ever in the area). It is such a trip seeing these vibrant neighborhoods brimming with vintage treasures, many with a distinct American flavor.

What struck us most during our experience of vintage shopping in Japan was the unexpected mix of visitors in these stores. It was intriguing to find a fair number of Americans among the bustling aisles, all on a quest for those elusive one-of-a-kind finds.

In these havens of retro fashion in Japan, every piece tells a story. Whether it's a well-loved denim jacket or a quirky '80s tee, each item carries its own unique history and charm.

Exploring these vintage stores isn’t just about shopping: It’s immersing yourself in a blend of cultures, where Japanese reverence for American fashion collides with the thrill of discovering timeless gems. It's a testament to Japan's ability to blend global influences into its vibrant cultural tapestry.

What to eat in Japan?

sushi in japan

The food and café scene in Japan is a whole cultural dive. Here's what struck us most when visiting the country for the first time (besides the well-known ‘no tipping' policy):

  • they hand out wet wipes, not the dry ones we're used to;
  • chopsticks are the default cutlery (but hey, you surprisingly get better at using them within days!);
  • menus are often entirely in Japanese (thank goodness for Google photo translator);
  • in ramen spots, you often order through a machine. If tables are full, the machine lets you leave your number and texts you when a spot frees up.

One another point — you can drink tap water in Japan, it is absolutely safe. There are even public water fountains in subway stations.

Rundown of Japanese delicacies

fluffy cheesecake in Japan

You might wonder why every time you try to find the info on food in Japan, Osaka is the first city that pops up in your search results. Well, Osaka indeed carries the reputation of being Japan's food capital; but while some dishes like okonomiyaki, takoyaki, and kushikatsu might seem exclusive to Osaka, variations of these delicacies can be savored in other parts of Japan.

Now, let’s break it down a little, because all of these words might seem overwhelming if you’ve never heard them before:

  • Okonomiyaki savory pancake is a delightful medley of batter, cabbage, and various ingredients like seafood, pork, or vegetables, all griddled to perfection. The name itself translates to “grilled as you like it” allowing customization with sauces, toppings, and condiments. In Osaka, it's typically cooked on a teppan (griddle) and is mixed all together. In Hiroshima, it's distinct with layers of ingredients like noodles and cabbage. Additionally, regions like Hokkaido offer their renditions, each bringing a unique twist to this beloved dish.
  • Takoyaki, those delightful octopus-filled balls, might be synonymous with Osaka, but they're not limited to this city. You can savor these tasty treats in other areas, each place adding its own touch to the recipe. Note the magically moving tuna shavings on top of the balls — when the dish is hot, it looks like they’re dancing!
  • Kushikatsu, deep-fried skewers, is a culinary gem associated with Osaka, but similar skewered delights can be found across Japan, often with their regional variations.
  • Even the famous fluffy cheesecake, while not exclusive to Osaka, holds a special place in the hearts of many in this city.
  • Not mentioned earlier but a popular Japanese sweet, taiyaki is a fish-shaped cake typically filled with sweet red bean paste. The cake has a crispy exterior with a soft, sweet filling, and sometimes, modern variations offer fillings like custard, chocolate, or even savory options like cheese or sausage.

Osaka's food scene is undeniably vibrant, and while these dishes might have their roots here, exploring Japan offers a delightful journey of discovering unique flavors and regional specialties across the country.

Cuisine guidelines

Ramen in Japan

Exploring the diverse world of Japanese cuisine was a highlight of our trip! Ramen became an obsession — its flavorful broth and perfectly cooked noodles made every bowl a comforting delight.

One cannot write about ramen in Japan without mentioning the world-famous restaurant chain — Ichiran. Let us tell you, that place is an experience! It's got an automated ordering process, private eating booths, a curtain for serving your ramen, and communication through unique signs.

Side note: While Ichiran's tonkotsu ramen (they specialize only in one type of ramen) is exceptional, the queues in Tokyo were a bit daunting for us. However, discovering Ichiran outlets in other cities became our go-to for that authentic ramen fix without the long waits. The tonkotsu broth was always our favorite, boasting a rich creaminess that was pure comfort in a bowl.

There are four most important types of ramen:

  • Tonkotsu Ramen: Known for its rich, creamy pork bone broth.
  • Shoyu Ramen: A soy sauce-based broth with clear flavors.
  • Miso Ramen: Made with a miso-based broth, offering a more robust and umami (earthy) taste.
  • Shio Ramen: Features a clear, salt-based broth, offering a light and delicate flavor.

Udon, with its hearty noodles swimming in a flavorful broth, was a comfort food we cherished. Pairing it with crispy tempura made for a satisfying combination of textures and flavors. And tonkatsu, those crispy pork cutlets, always left us craving for more with their juicy, flavorful meat and that tangy tonkatsu sauce.

When you’ve had your fair share of noodles, make a 180 and get into the fish and rice territory. Experiencing sushi in Japan is a revelation, especially in conveyor belt restaurants like Kura Sushi and Nemuro Hanamaru.

  • Adhering to the “rules” of sushi dining in these places — like dipping the fish, not the rice, in soy sauce — added a layer of authenticity to the experience. It was fascinating to watch the colorful plates glide by and placing separate orders allowed us to savor each dish at its freshest.

Dining in Japan isn’t just about the food; it will not only enhance your meals, it is also about embracing the customs and traditions woven into every culinary experience. Following the dining etiquette immerses us more deeply in the cultural nuances of Japan.

Terrible queues

queues in Japan

The queues in Japan are like an unwritten chapter in the traveler's handbook! It's not just the subway where you witness these orchestrated marvels of passenger-pushing that make for quite the spectacle. Even in the realm of public dining, queues seem to be a testament to a place's popularity and, dare I say, its quality.

Weekends? Brace yourself for the queue-pocalypse. It's like the whole city is in line for a single meal! But here's the secret sleight of hand — on weekdays, around that small (but mighty) window between 2 and 4 p.m., you can outsmart the queues. That's when the office folks have had their lunch fix, and the tourist herds have moved on. We pulled this maneuver more than once, slipping into places that reviewers swore had heroic 1-hour to 1.5-hour wait times. Magic? Almost. But it's a weekday wizardry that opens up these bustling spots for a serene lunch experience.

So, while the queues might seem an unavoidable part of the Japanese fabric, a bit of strategic scheduling can turn those potential hours of waiting into a casual stroll right to the front of the line. It's the weekday lunchtime loophole, a traveler's ace up the sleeve in the battle against queues in Japan!

Convenience stores

Convenience store 7/11

If you are from any other country where there is a 7/11, then you should know that in Japan it is not a “dump” and not just a store for miscellaneous groceries, but a lifesaver at any time of the day. Trust us, once you go 7/11 in Japan, you never go back: The characteristic melody at the entrance to the store will keep popping up in your head and warming your heart for a long time. In Japanese convenience stores you can eat 3 times a day, get dressed (they sell packed shirts, socks, pants), withdraw money (ATMs) and photocopy documents (it is a mandatory element of all stores).

You can even make yourself a coffee or smoothie! In a friendly bunch with 7/11 go Lawson and Family Mart; and all together they seem to form what the whole of Japan hangs on.

In Japan, in general, you will rarely see big supermarkets, Japanese people buy everything for one so small 7/11s are perfect for them.

What to look for and try in a convenience store:

  • any bento set (400-500¥/$3, they are ALWAYS fresh and delicious)
  • hot tea with milk in a bottle (150¥/$1)
  • pudding in a white box (180¥/$1,2)
  • legendary smoothies from 7/11 (300¥/$2)
  • mochi ice cream (175¥/1,2)
  • onigiri (150-200¥/$1)
  • matcha chocolate (and matcha coated boba balls).

Breakfast

Breakfast rice from 7/11

If you're skipping the 7/11 rice breakfast routine for your trip, snagging a hotel with breakfast is a solid move. Japan's not big on the poached eggs and avocado for breakfast — many spots only open around noon, and even those open at 8 a.m. don’t start serving proper food until 11 a.m.

Before that, it's mostly simple sandwiches and drinks. If your hotel doesn't offer breakfast, you've got a few backup plans: Grab onigiri from a store, hunt for those rare breakfast cafes (think places like Melbourne Coffee in Osaka — pretty obvious it's Australian), or head to a bakery for rolls or sandwiches.

  • We once rode out the morning wave surviving on sandwiches from Bank Bakery around Tokyo's Kayabacho Station — pretty clutch!

Where to stay in Japan?

Almont Inn Tokyo Nihonbashi

Before we actually dive into our list of tried-and-tested hotels in Japan, let us bring a few curious points to life, as Japan accommodations come with some unique features:

  • Check-in times are strictly from 3 p.m. with no exceptions for early check-ins.
  • Bathrooms in budget hotels often follow a standard design and aren't spacious.
  • Windows in most hotels are non-operable, which can be bothersome.
  • Additionally, bottled water might not be provided in rooms due to the drinkable tap water.

As for the types of accommodation, in Japan you also can try Traditional Japanese inns. They are more than just a place to sleep. Ryokans are probably the oldest inns in the world, believed to date back to the 8th century. They are based on the principles of omotenashi — traditional Japanese hospitality. The rooms have retained their nostalgic charm to this day. We haven't stayed in one of these, but we recommend you try it if you have time.

Budget-friendly hotels

We Base Hiroshima

Hotels in Japan are very expensive. So we decided to share the hotels we stayed in ourselves: Comfortable but not hard on your wallet (at least when compared to other options).

3* Almont Inn Tokyo Nihonbashi:
+ Budget-friendly hotel in Tokyo
+ Around $50 per day for 2 persons
+ Conveniently located within a 20-minute walk to Ginza
+ Close to a subway station, including the airport express
+ Rooms are small but comfortable, with nearby cool spots like Bank Bakery and Knag for coffee and work

2* We Base Hiroshima:
+ Hostel-style accommodation in Hiroshima
+ Around $100 per day for 2 persons
+ Offers good value for money
+ Possesses a comfortable atmosphere

3* Bande Hotel Osaka:
+ Affordable stay in Osaka
+ Around $60 per day for 2 persons
+ Situated in a charming residential area, offering insights into Japanese life
+ A minute away from a subway station, providing easy access to the city center

3* Sapporo Tokyu REI Hotel:
+ Recommended accommodation in Sapporo
+ Around $60 per day for 2 persons
+ Provides comfortable rooms and amenities
+ Ideal for exploring Sapporo's attractions

Districts of Tokyo

Asakusa Tokyo

Now, when it comes to Tokyo, a little deep-dive is in order (especially given the fact that we’ve walked what seems like hundreds of miles all around the city during our last trip, so all the emotions are still raw, fresh, and authentically exciting). After all, Tokyo is a vast city with diverse neighborhoods, each offering a unique experience:

  • Known for its upscale shopping, dining, and entertainment, Ginza is a chic district with high-end boutiques, department stores, and luxury brands. Strolling along the pedestrian-friendly Chuo-dori Street amidst neon lights felt like stepping into a glamorous world.
  • Home to the iconic Senso-ji Temple and Nakamise Shopping Street, Asakusa is rich in history and culture. The traditional atmosphere, especially around the temple area, is captivating. Exploring the bustling streets and trying street food like savory senbei (rice crackers) is an experience in itself.
  • Famous for the vibrant Shibuya Crossing and trendy fashion, Shibuya is always buzzing with energy. The blend of shopping, dining, and nightlife options was incredible. Standing amidst the crowds at the crossing felt surreal, and discovering hidden gems in the quieter alleys was a pleasant surprise.
  • A bustling hub of entertainment, business, and shopping, Shinjuku's neon-lit streets and skyscrapers are mesmerizing. Exploring the Golden Gai area with its tiny bars and the peaceful Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden provided a fascinating contrast.
  • Known for its youthful culture and fashion, Harajuku feels like stepping into a colorful, trendy wonderland. Takeshita Street's quirky boutiques and vibrant street fashion were delightful to explore.

While each neighborhood offers its own allure, finding accommodation depends on your preferences. Ginza and Shibuya offer convenience and nightlife, while Asakusa and Harajuku provide a blend of tradition and modernity. Shinjuku caters to diverse tastes with its entertainment and business districts. It's all about finding the vibe that resonates best with your travel style!

Best luxury hotels

New American Plaza Tokyo

Remember how we’ve mentioned that your best bet on a guaranteed breakfast was to find a hotel that serves you one? Unfortunately, the majority of the accommodations with such options seem to be on a pricier side. Still, finding hotels with fantastic breakfast options in Tokyo's Ginza, Shibuya, and Asakusa areas can elevate your stay. Here are a few recommendations:

5* The Peninsula Tokyo:
+ Ginza Area
+ Rates around $1100 per day for 2 persons
+ Renowned for its opulence and exceptional service
+ Offers elegant rooms with stunning city views
+ Features a lavish spa, multiple dining options, and a rooftop terrace
+ Situated in a prime location in the heart of Tokyo, close to shopping and cultural attractions

5* Cerulean Tower Tokyu Hotel:
+ Shibuya Area
+ Approximately $500 per day for 2 persons
+ Known for its panoramic city views
+ Spacious, comfortable rooms with modern amenities
+ Offers various dining choices, a fitness center, and a swimming pool
+ Located in Shibuya and provides easy access to shopping and entertainment

4* Hotel Gracery Shinjuku:
+ Ginza Area
+ Around $350 per day for 2 persons
+ Known for a giant Godzilla head on the rooftop
+ Comfortable and modern rooms with great city views
+ Features several dining options and a convenient location in Shinjuku

3* Richmond Hotel Premier Asakusa International:
+ Area Asakusa
+ Prices approximately $330 per day for 2 persons
+ Located in the vibrant Asakusa district
+ Comfortable and modern rooms with various amenities
+ Offers a restaurant, bar, and a 24-hour front desk
+ Convenient access to Asakusa's cultural attractions including Senso-ji Temple and Nakamise Shopping Street

How to get around Japan?

shinkansen to Hirishima

Let’s start with things to know before traveling to Tokyo, transport-wise. We tried various options, abandoned a few, and ended up not regretting any choices. Here's our candid guide on Japanese transportation options.

From the airport

Planning your airport-to-hotel transfer is crucial, especially for late arrivals. During our first trip, we learned the lesson by getting a $100 cab ride. We aimed to avoid evening flights this time.

Transport from airports tends to either halt completely or operate infrequently at night, leaving cabs as the expensive last resort. For Osaka and Tokyo, I'd suggest checking Google Maps for prices and routes to the city center. However, since you might need multiple subway connections and a combined ticket, head straight to the ticket office instead of the machines. Those airport ticket machines can be quite tricky to navigate, especially when you're not accustomed to them.

In the city

Metro in Osaka, Tokyo

Navigating Japan's public transportation, especially the subway system, was a cornerstone of our city's explorations. We relied solely on the subway, skipping cabs altogether, and for good reason. The subway network is a lifeline in major cities, and Google Maps emerged as our knight in shining armor, meticulously detailing connections, platforms, timings, and even fares — a true savior for the uninitiated traveler.

Side note: This reliance on Google Maps underscored the importance of having a reliable internet connection (cue Airalo), which we get into a little further down in the article) to prevent confusion and ensure seamless journeys.

Now, about the subway's nuances:

  • There are women's cars during rush hour, typically from 8:30 to 9:00, a thoughtful measure ensuring comfort and safety.
  • Tokyo subway operates under two different companies, necessitating separate tickets unless you opt for a combined pass. It's a little dance ensuring you buy the right ticket, often cross-checking Google's suggested fare with the machine's display. Trust me; those small differences matter!
  • And don't even get me started on the stairs — seemingly endless and relentless. Escalators or elevators? Well, they're a rare sight or often tucked away at the opposite end of the station, making the staircase marathon a daily workout routine!

So, while the subway is a fantastic mode of transport, be prepared for the lack of tickets and the stairmaster challenge. But hey, those little intricacies add layers to the adventure, right?

There is a little lifehack: You can buy Tokyo Subway Ticket for 1/2/3 Days (from $5 to $10) on Klook.

Japan Rail Pass

shinkansen train

The Japan Rail Pass has been somewhat of a tourist rite of passage, and I can totally relate to the allure of that envelope (real one, not a digital letter!) arriving with the pass inside — it feels like stepping into the journey before it even begins. However, when it comes down to brass tacks, the pass's value isn't as clear-cut as it used to be.

  • Let's break down the math: The classic Tokyo-Osaka-Kyoto-Nara-Hiroshima-Himeji-Tokyo route via Shinkansen adds up to around 57,000¥ or $380 per person. Now, here's the kicker — the cheapest one-week Japan Rail Pass clocks in at $340. Sounds like a steal, right? But wait, not so fast!

As the landscape of prices and travel evolves, it's crucial to crunch the numbers for your specific itinerary. In this case, it seems the total individual fares are just slightly higher than the cost of the pass itself. This might signal that for this particular route, purchasing individual tickets might be marginally more cost-effective than investing in the pass.

Side note: The Japan Rail Pass used to be an undisputed winner, but with changing costs and routes, it's become a more nuanced decision. It's always worth doing the good old-fashioned math, just like you've brilliantly done here, to ensure you're making the most financially savvy choice for your travel plans.

It sounds like the Japan Rail Pass might not be the jackpot it once was, especially with the surge in Shinkansen fares since October 2023. Opting for a 14-day pass at around $500 might still seem steep when considering your travel itinerary. However, here's where the regional passes come into play — they might just be the unsung heroes in this tale.

shinkansen ticket

The Shinkansen fares can be staggering, no doubt about it. On our recent trip, we used it sparingly, once from Osaka to Hiroshima and back, shelling out $150 per person for that single journey. The reality is, you don't find yourself riding the bullet trains that frequently, particularly when city metro systems are often more convenient for urban travel — and sadly, those aren't covered by the JR Pass.

Buying Shinkansen tickets is a task in itself. The machines at stations, typically found where the Shinkansen departs, operate like regular subway ticket machines. You punch in your destination, choose a reserved or non-reserved seat (here's a surprising quirk—non-reserved seats might fill up a day or two before departure, leaving you stuck standing without a seat even with a hefty $150 fare if the car's full).

With these nuances in mind, regional passes might be the golden ticket. They cater to specific areas, offer unlimited travel within those zones, and might just tip the scales in favor of affordability and convenience for your travel plans. It's all about navigating the maze of options to find what aligns best with your itinerary and budget.

You can buy high speed train tickets on Klook. They cost from $30 to $100, and you can choose your destination here.

What else is important to know?

Let’s talk about some other essential things to book/purchase before going to Japan and other tourist information.

E-Sim

Shopping in Japan

Navigating internet and mobile communication in Japan can be a traveler's puzzle, but we found a seamless solution through Airalo's eSIM service. At the airport, the buzz revolves around renting routers, but the process seemed too intricate for us. Instead, we opted for the tried-and-trusted Airalo eSIM, a familiar choice for our global adventures.

For a fair price of $26, we secured a 20GB data package valid for 30 days. Surprisingly, this cost aligns well with what you'd pay for a regular local prepaid SIM Card. However, it's worth noting that your phone must support the eSIM function; if it doesn't, it might be wiser to snag a SIM card in the city, bypassing the airport options.

Additionally, free Wi-Fi in Japan is a widespread blessing, particularly noticeable in Tokyo. It's like a digital oasis sprinkled across the cityscape, allowing for intermittent connectivity even if you opt for a data plan. This blend of Airalo's eSIM reliability and the abundance of free Wi-Fi made staying connected in Japan a breeze throughout our adventures.

Luggage delivery service

Luggage delivery service

That's a great tip to make navigating Japan's bustling transportation system a lot more manageable! Carrying luggage through the subway's dense traffic and tackling those notorious high stairs can be a real hassle. Instead, booking a luggage delivery service can be a game-changer, especially if you're switching hotels in Tokyo.

Services like the one available on Klook take the burden off your shoulders — literally! They handle transporting all your luggage between hotels, allowing you to move around the city hassle-free. Surprisingly, this service often turns out to be more cost-effective than opting for a cab and lugging your bags yourself.

What are the dos and don'ts in Japan?

Osaka Universal Harry Potter

If it’s your first time in Japan, we've put together some fundamental rules to ensure your stay in Japan is comfortable and safe. You can consider them to be the top Japan travel tips you need to know before visiting.

Don't:
— Smoke outside designated areas.
— Avoid using excessive perfume; it's considered impolite (Japanese streets usually have neutral or pleasant food odors).
— Refrain from eating in public transport (although we've seen locals drink in public, especially in hot weather).
— Personally, we suggest not queuing endlessly for “that” famous ramen or udon; similar options can be found nearby without the wait.

Do:
+ Respect the subway queue system.
+ Visit the rooftops in malls for great views.
+ Experiment with food from convenience stores.
+ Try at least three types of hot tea from vending machines.
+ Pre-download Google Translate for assistance.

How many weeks is enough for Japan?

Japan in one month

The ideal duration for your trip to Japan truly depends on how many cities you wish to explore. In our experience, the first visit of 7 days covering only Tokyo-Kyoto-Osaka felt rushed. However, even a month in Japan didn’t seem like enough time for us! Especially if you aim to venture into the local Alps, national parks, and beyond, try to allocate 2-3 weeks to allow for a more fulfilling experience. You can manage with less time, but it might mean rushing or missing out on certain places.

Japan feels more like a marathon than a typical vacation. How many days is enough to visit Japan? For instance, Osaka deserves at least 3 days (including Universal Studios), Tokyo — 7 days at least (our 10-day stay felt short!).

  • The timeline of our last trip to Japan looked like this: Allotting time to Osaka (5 days), Hiroshima (a day), Kobe (a day), Kyoto (a day), Sapporo and Hokkaido (6 days), and Tokyo (10 days). Make of it what you will, but always try to get as much vacation time as possible — Japan calls for a thorough investigation!

Now let’s talk about the perfect season. It seems that in countries with a distinct change of seasons, the best time to visit is summer, but it doesn't work that way in Japan. Summers in Japan are terrible — July and August are just torture. It's consistently over +30°C outside, high humidity and hot concrete all around. Even in October, during our trip, it was +30°C in Osaka. So, the best time to visit Japan is in the spring or fall.

What is the best month to visit Japan? We would recommend April and October when the weather is warm and dry.

Final thoughts

Here we come to the end of our tips for visiting Tokyo. Now you know how to travel to Japan comfortably.

Of course, we can't fit everything into one article, but we've aimed to cover the essentials that will undoubtedly enhance the quality of your stay. These insights are worth considering as you embark on an adventure that promises immense joy! The must-visit destinations await your exploration.

Safe travels and make the most of this incredible journey!