Good morning, everyone! My brother is here to tell you alllll about Japan and everything you need to know if you’re planning on traveling there! If you have any questions be sure to leave them in the comment section and we’ll answer you there 🙂
Hey guys, today is a special blog takeover by Cait’s younger brother, Chris. I lived in Japan for 4 years and recently we made a family trip there that you probably saw on my sister’s Instagram! We had a great time there and today I am going to talk about the things you definitely need to do/see while you are there, while also throwing out some random tips.
Japan is a relatively small country compared to the United States, but it is still a decently long country if you travel from one end to the other. That being said, you will need to decide what is your primary purpose of your trip and then choose the best locations for the time frame you will be visiting. We could only travel for roughly one week on our most recent trip, which I generally think is overall too rushed of a trip for a country that (for western audiences anyway) is so far away. Flying from east coast USA to Tokyo generally takes anywhere from 16 to 23 hours, depending on the route you can find. That being considered, I believe two or three weeks would be most enjoyable, but one week is still great if that’s all you can do.
Japan has many beautiful sights and locations, but my two favorite locations for showing people Japan would be narrowed down to two main cities: Tokyo and Kyoto City.
Note: In this blog post I link to Japan Guide a lot. It’s an excellent source for planning your trip and has so much information, including transportation/how to get to certain places. If I don’t answer your specific question, then try Japan Guide first!
Tokyo is an extremely famous city and no matter where you go, people probably have heard of it before. It is Japan’s capital city, and one of the most busy/happening places you will ever find. There are brilliant billboards glowing throughout different district of Tokyo such as Shibuya and Shinjuku and thousands of places to stop for food. It has a rather complex subway system that flows throughout the majority of the city and can take you exactly where you need to go. While it is definitely one of the most urban places you will ever find, it has its fair share of parks and other wildlife areas that compliment it perfectly, especially if you aim to go during Cherry Blossom season like we did.
Like I said earlier, Tokyo is split into districts, making it easier to find specific places of interest. My first recommendation is Shibuya. It is the “trendy” district of Tokyo filled with everything you think of when Tokyo comes to mind. It contains the busiest crosswalk in the world right outside Shibuya station which is both exciting and a great place for photos. Surrounding the crosswalks are huge stores that are great for shopping (especially for girls), as well as many beautiful street views and cafes if you walk around the area.
Tip #1 – You can actually take an elevator to the top of at least one of the buildings right in front of the crosswalk, making for a great aerial view and photo location. Looks like this.
Tip #2 – There is also a very famous Starbucks overlooking the entire crosswalk on the second floor of a different building. You will be able to easily see it once you’re at the crosswalk. Many people go there to enjoy people watching as well as taking time lapses of one of the busiest places in Japan.
Tip #3 – If you go during cherry blossom season (which you definitly should), there is a beautiful zigzag street nearby lined with jaw dropping cherry blossom trees that look like this.
Asakusa is a very famous temple in Tokyo that has a long and busy entrance that continues for quite a while. Once you make your way through it, you arrive at the actual temple where you can see what kind of architecture Japan has to offer. To be honest, you can find temples and shrines all over Japan, but I do recommend visiting the more famous ones like Asakusa, as they really are a treat.
Tip #1 – There is a famous pot (cauldron?) of burning incense right before the actual tempe/l that many people visit. You can light some incense there and if you breathe in the smoke from that pot, it is considered good luck. You will see many people there doing just that!
Tip #2 – From this area you will also be able to see the tallest tower in Japan, Tokyo Sky Tree. It is pretty close and won’t take too long to get there. I have never actually been to the top, but on clear days, you can actually see Mt. Fuji from there.
Next is the Cultural Capital of Japan….
Kyoto City used to be the capital of Japan back in the olden days. It is still a decently sized place, but nowhere near the size of Tokyo. What it lacks in size though it makes up for with its amazing supply of gorgeous temples and shrines in all directions. For our family trip we actually went straight from the Tokyo airport to Kyoto. It is in the heart of Japan, so you can find many other interesting places nearby easily. This was also the general area I lived in for 3 years, so I am very familiar with this overall area of Japan, known as Kansai.
Fushimi Inari has to be the most iconic shrine in Japan. Those beautiful red gates that you always see in pictures of Japan are known as Torii Gates. They are there to mark the entrance to the shrine you are approaching. This shrine is famous for a fox god known as Inari (I believe). Instead of just a couple of them however there are thousands of them that line a path up the mountain. It is one of the most photographed places in Japan and for good reason, it just looks so unlike anything else. I would highly recommend visiting this place, but you might want some tips for this one.
Tip #1 – This place is insanely popular. You may see beautiful shots with no one in them, but don’t expect to get that lucky unless you come very early. I believe the subway starts around 5am, maybe earlier, but if you want to see it at its best it would be better to get there before the crowds start to flow in around 9 am or earlier during peak seasons.
Tip #2- The hike goes up a mountain side for a good bit. I usually go around halfway where there is a slight change in scenery and then turn around. At the top there are some decent views of the city and its a fun hike, but if you are trying to do a lot during your day I don’t think its very necessary to see it.
Tip #3 – This place actually looks really atmospheric in the rain. I don’t like standing in the rain at all, but if you want to see some otherworldly views, I think this is one of them. It was raining the first time I went, also very dark, so it gave me a very different perspective on the place. The plus side is that they’re are hardly any people when it rains, which is nice.
Kiyomizu-Dera is another incredibly famous temple. Honestly though, I prefer all the lovely streets leading up to this temple more than the temple itself. One thing to note about this place is that it is always, always under construction. I’ve been five or six times and every single time, some part of it has been under construction – which limits its beauty a bit. However, the streets leading up to this temple from the Gion area are beautiful and filled with cute shops and snack stalls. It’s very touristy so expect a lot of people, but its where I took my family on our first full day and they really liked it.
Tip #1 – You have to try a mochi snack called Yatsuhashi if you visit Kyoto. Its absolutely delicious and our mom loves them! There are a small triangle sweet, that is mochi on the outside and usually some sort of paste on the inside.
Tip #2 – Wear comfy shoes for this day, because you will definitely be doing a lot of walking here. Buses are an option, but during peak season they are very, very crowded. I usually opt for subway + walking.
Aryashiyama is my favorite area of Kyoto. This is where you’ll find the huge bamboo forest, as well as a beautiful river that you can take a boat out on. Both cherry blossom season and the peak of fall look amazing here. There are many wonderful places here, so it is probably better to read the guide from the link above. This one is a must go, especially if you want get out of the city and see some nature.
Tip#1 – The bamboo forest is actually split into two different sections so if you are walking through and and it looks like the bamboo stops, keep going and you will find the second half. I didn’t realize this until my fourth trip there.
Tip #2 – There is a very scenic local train you can take called the Saga railway here from Arashiyama. It looks amazing in summer and spring, but it probably is the best in fall.
Overall Travel and Japan Tips
There are still plenty of other amazing locations in both of those cities, but those are my highlights if you are on a limited time schedule. If you have more time in Japan and you want to know some of my personal favorite locations, I’ll make a list (below) for you to check out. Most of the places are pretty popular, but don’t get quite as crowded as Tokyo and Kyoto.
- Hiroshima and Miyajima – beautiful city and island that are home to some gorgeous locations
- Enoshima and Kamakura – not too far from Tokyo and you can find this beautiful beach town
- The Shimanami Kaido (famous biking route) – gorgeous route going over six different islands that are often traveled by bike or car, near Hiroshima. I did this twice and absolutely loved it! View from my drone
- Nara (land of deer) – close to Kyoto and Osaka. Smaller city that has many roaming deer, temples, and shrines
- Osaka City – one of the biggest cities in Japan. Known for being more casual than Tokyo and famous for amazing fried food.
- Kobe – port city near Osaka. Beautiful city with influences from western countries as well as a variety of terrain. Famous for Kobe Beef.
- Mt. Fuji – Japan’s most famous landmark and a real sight to behold. Climbing is possible within certain months, but many people will visit the lakes nearby for the amazing views. Example
- Hakone – a famous “onsen” town or hot spring town. Near Mt. Fuji and attracts many visitors from all over.
- Matsumoto Castle – more northern than some other locations, but a pretty city with a very iconic castle. The Castle
- Hokkaido – the northern most island of Japan famous for the snow festival. Great in both winter and summer.
I highly recommend you visit these places if you have the time! Japan is relatively small and that makes it much easier to travel, yet each places has some sort of signature food or sight that makes it special. If you love to travel and want a challenge, try and visit all of Japan’s 47 prefectures! There are similar to the US states, but much smaller.
Now lets talk questions you might have about Japan.
- What if I don’t speak Japanese? If you are visiting a big town such as Tokyo and Kyoto, I don’t see this being a big problem. Most hotels will generally have some level of English speaking. If you go someplace small, don’t expect any English, but don’t worry about it. Part of the fun is being so far outside of your comfort zone and just doing your best. Learning some basic Japanese phrases would also be nice.
- How much money should I bring and is it hard to get more money once I am there? We traveled for one week and spent about $1,800 for three people. We already paid for hotels and plane tickets. Food generally isn’t too expensive and travel only gets expensive if you use bullet train. Money is easy to get from an ATM. The 7/11s in Japan always have a reliable ATM to get money out of my American account.
- Is it safe? Generally Japan is a very safe country. Stealing hardly ever happens compared to the west and other forms of violence also are much less common here. I’d say stay cautious (as you always should when you travel), but Japan overall feels much safer. Many people walk around at night and never feel worried. Earthquakes happen from time to time, but aren’t too common. If you are ever involved in one be sure to take cover under a desk and avoid going outside while things are still shaking.
- Do not tip when you pay for food. Literally never do. Some people say its rude to actually tip.
- Japan is very cash based. Cards are accepted at very high end places or something like a hotel, but some places only take cash. Bring your yen.
- Don’t talk on the phone or be loud on public transportation. It is considered rude. Though it does still happen.
- Most people just use public transportation in Japan. Cars are pretty expensive and often discouraged. Uber is available in Tokyo.
- Buy an IC card at the station. They are basically debit cards for public transportation. You put money on it and tap it on the sensor while going through the station gates. It saves a lot of time since you don’t have to always keep buying tickets. Some buses don’t use though so make sure to have some change.
- “Onsen” or hot springs are very famous in Japan. However they are public baths and you must go completely naked. There is a male and female section. If you have any tattoos at all you probably will be denied entry.
- All seasons are good for travel but the most popular are Spring and Fall. Sakura season is generally around the end of March and the fall leaves look generally great around the end of October. Summer is also a great time to be there because of some amazing traditional Japanese summer festivals called “Matsuri”, but be warned Japan is incredibly hot and humid during summer. Winter is nice if you are going north. Hokkaido is a popular place for its Snow Festival which has huge snow sculptures in the middle of Sapporo city.
- BONUS – not really a tip, but if you are like me and planning a trip and like to watch movies of that country before you go, definitely watch “Your Name.” It’s an animated movie that has won countless awards and is my favorite of all time. The artistic work in it is second to none and its amazing how well it captures the beauty of Japan. Give it a watch!
It’s good to know a little bit of Japanese to fall back on if the situation comes. Here are some useful phrases that will come in handy.
- Konnichiwa – Hello or Good afternoon
- Arigato – Thank you
- Sumimasen – Sorry or excuse me. Can be used to call over your waiter or when trying to get off the train.
- Kore (onegaishimasu) – I want this one (please) (while pointing). Used in a shop or while looking at a menu in a restaurant. The second part makes it harder to say, but makes it sound polite and more clear on what you want.
- Hai – yes
- iie – no
- Eigo wakarimasu ka – Do you understand English
- Daijoubu – I am okay
- Doko – Where
- Okaikei – Say to waiter if you want your bill
- Wakarimasen – I don’t understand
There are plenty of phrase lists on the internet as well so be sure to check them if you want to try your hand at speaking Japanese while you are there!
Well that’s about it for my Japan Guide, if anyone has questions about an upcoming trip or just in general feel free to leave a comment or send me a message. You can ask me questions or follow me @covielovie on instagram if you like my picture style. I hope this has helped some of you wanting to plan a trip to this beautiful country!