Travel tips for Japan

I am going to Japan for two weeks in mid September. I’ve never been before, but am really looking forward to it.

I am going with a friend, and we will be on a guided tour, but with a few free days where we can do what we want (one in Tokyo, one in Osaka and one in Kyoto, plus the odd afternoon here and there).

It would be great to get recommendations from anyone who has been to Japan regarding things to see and do, but also any general tips when visiting Japan would be great.

Of course, there are plenty of websites about visiting Japan, but it would be good to get some more individual opinions.

Thanks in advance for your responses!

I assume your home base will be in Tokyo. When I was on business trips I tried to get away from Tokyo on weekends. Tokyo is too many people, and too commercial for me. Osaka was more of the same, although this was a while ago and it may have changed in the past 20 years. My goal was to get out to the countryside as much as possible. My best recommendation would be to spend a day in Kyoto. It’s an amazing and peaceful place. You can just wander around on foot, check out the shrines and have lunch a local sushi place. Take the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) from Tokyo to Kyoto and that saves you a lot of time (and is pretty fun). I really enjoyed visiting Japan, however when I was there most of the signage was only in Japanese, and I was often alone, so for example getting around Tokyo on the underground (Metro) was not easy. I assume there is more English signage to help tourists get around easier.

StrangeBird, what are your hobbies/interests?

I think dolphinboy is absolutely right but if crowds don’t bother you too much there are also an infinite number of cool things to do in Tokyo. It’s hard to ignore a lot of the typical tourist stops if it’s your first time!

Go to Odaiba and see a giant robot (esp at night)
Sensoji Temple in Asakusa is one of the more famous historic areas
Akihabara is a must for nerd stuff if you’re into that
Go to Boulange in Shibuya for the best damn croissants/pastries
“Red Light District” in Shinjuku is amazing for people watching if nothing else

I have just returned form 2 weeks in Japan - it was amazing.

when in Kyoto get to your tourist day trip destination early if you want to avoid the crowds. anything after 9am and it’s just a crush of selfie snappers. we arrived at fushimi inari at 6am and almost had the place to ourselves.

You can take a day trip from Tokyo to Kamakura easily by train. Kamakura has a great temple and a giant Buddha and it’s on the coast. Lot’s to see there.

Spring for a Japan Rail pass. Damn near the best way to get around is train, and having it all prepaid is very liberating.

Second the idea to spend most of a day visiting Kamakura, there are interesting crafts, a giant Buddha statue, and the last travel stage is (or used to be) a charming little railroad.

Another option for a day trip from Tokyo is the shrine in Nikko to the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu. It is very highly decorated, almost gaudy, if you like that sort of thing. If you get tired of that sort of thing while you’re there, stroll a few yards next door to the left and there is a very quiet Buddhist temple that benefits from the comparison. Nikko is up in the hills and it would be a full day trip to go there and back. Also, you might get a pretty good show of the autumn leaves there in mid-September, since it is to the north and in the mountains, and it will be noticeably cooler up there (the weather at that time is still pretty hot and humid in Japan).

Your tour in Kyoto will probably include some of the best-known temples, but if it doesn’t include these two I recommend them highly: the Phoenix Hall at Byodo-in is probably the most serenely beautiful temple; and Kyomizu-dera has the most magnificent setting - on a hill, and it has this amazing large wooden terrace supported by huge logs that is my single favorite sight-seeing spot in Japan. It’s a bit of a hike up the steps to get to it, though. Second the idea to go early, they open at 6am, and it is very popular.

Quick lesson for those interested: Japan has Shinto shrines (“jinja”) and Buddhist temples (“o-tera”). Shrines usually have red and white hangings, especially white, and have the large Torii gates. Buddhist temples are usually more subdued (although there’s one you’ll probably see in Kyoto that is covered in gold), and they usually have several buildings including a pagoda. Temple names always end in -tera or -dera, or -ji, or -in.

When going to restaurants, look at the menu first. If they do not have pictures or western menus, ordering food is difficult when you don’t read kanji. This was a problem for me outside of Tokyo. In Tokyo there was enough English (spoken and written) to manage most anything.

And I recommend visiting the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. A fascinating place.

I have never been to Japan, but I’d suggest watching some of the recent travel vlogs by Gabriel Traveler. While he usually targets the budget side of travel, the city vlogs will give you an idea of what to expect there.

Kyoto is awesome - no trip to Japan should exclude it - stay up late and walk through the night markets.

“Sake Kudasai” (may I please have some sake)
“Biru Kudasai” (may I please have a beer)
“Sumimasen, Toire wa doko desu ka?” (excuse me, where is the toilet?)

I second the idea of getting a Japan Rail Pass. The trains are so fast that you can go incredibly far even on a day trip.

I’d skip the Osaka “free day” and head south to Hiroshima to see the Atom Bomb museum and then head to Himeji Castle, the largest castle complex in Japan. It survived the WW 2 bombing and is the “real thing” and dates from around 1600. Many castles in Japan, including the one in Osaka, are concrete replicas.

Thanks everyone, some really great ideas.

I am really happy that I understood all of zoid’s phrases! Understanding things written in kanji and kana will be a lot more tricky, but I will take xizor’s tip on pictures in menus into account.

Himeji Castle is already on the list of things we are seeing. Kamakura sounds interesting as well.

Don’t be afraid to explore some of the smaller side streets, that look like alleys in North American cities. There’s all sorts of cool little stores, bars and restaurants hidden there.

Himeji castle is really cool. When I visited in 2008 there was a sushi place on the right side of the main street going from the railway station to the castle that I recommend. This was the only place that I was able to find during my trip that served fugu. If that’s something you’re looking to try I highly recommend it. It’s hard to miss, as they have an aquarium with blowfish on display behind the front window.

Agree 100%. Japan is very safe, even Tokyo. Don’t be afraid to explore. It’s not like wandering around NY.

I would really, really like to have a cocktail at Bar Benfiddich. I mean just watch this.

Also home to the Kyoto railway station (“one of the country’s largest buildings,” and a really nice bit of architecture) where the department store sold /authentic/ Japanese trinkets (I bought Moomin Troll stuff for my sisters) and the small museum was showing a really really interesting group of prints when I was there. And down through the park to what I think it a top-level Railway Museum – with working turntable at the roundhouse. full of engines in good condition, plus a lot more stuff inside.

At the time of the Meiji restoration, for political reasons, native Japanese religion was split sharply into two: Shinto and Buddhist. At some of the older sites you’ll see elements of both. The little shrines you’ll find littered around the country are animist (Shinto). The big Buddhist temples are churches: you’ll find church bulletins about collecting blankets for refugees and participating in gatherings to oppose war. The “national treasure” shrines give and sell stamp marks, for you to collect in your special collection book (like an autograph book) Buy a blank book at your first big shrine (or take an autograph book with you), and you’ll be able to collect stamp marks like a native :slight_smile:

As well as the big and little shrines, as you wander around a city you’ll see — wedding and funeral venues — That is, temples/shrines, often adjacent to gardens and graveyards, but now with locked doors and air conditioning. By the way, notice that the graveyards are on the tops of hills, surrounded by houses — unlike the Chinese, Japanese people don’t seem to mind living downhill from a graveyard.

The muzac is there to tell you something. It tells you where the down escalators is, what station you’re at, or that it’s closing time (which is why they are playing the Largo from Dvorak’s New World Symphony)

Rubbish disposal is difficult and highly regulated in Tokyo (and probably the rest of Japan), so some places will actually not have bags for you.

The Japanese people are notoriously polite. After a while, it was a relief to get back to a place (Singapore) where I didn’t constantly feel that I was the least-polite person present :). In spite of that, after just a little while, you notice that the Japanese are still human. Smoking while walking (like eating while walking), is rude and gauche – but – smokers, right? There’s still butts on the street.

Don’t get a JR rail pass - they will cost you more than you use them unless you travel huge distances every single day. Instead, get a chargeable rail pass (see link below) which is chargeable at any train station in any big city and can be used on any train or bus. As you go through the turnstile it will show you how much you have left on the card.

I recently wrote up some tips for a friend headed to Tokyo:

Get a Suica card. First stop at the airport should be the ATM (I like 7-Eleven’s Seven Bank). Then in the basement (or mezzanine at Haneda), you can put ¥3000 to ¥5000 on a Suica or Pasmo stored-value card. This will let you hop onto almost any form of bus or train, and can also be used in convenience stores, coffee shops, etc., and for storage lockers and some vending machines. No more figuring out which coin is which.

Konbini. Convenience stores—7-Eleven, FamilyMart, Lawson’s, and Sunkyu—are everywhere. Besides the usual pop and candy, they sell a remarkable array of tasty hot food. Outside city centers, they often have small seating areas and even toilets. If your vision of 7-Eleven food is hot dogs on a roller, think again. They have warming cases of delicious fried or grilled chicken (yakitori) or pork nuggets on a stick, meat dumplings, fried prawns, etc. Pick up some rice cake snacks in the chip aisle and a beer or soda from the cooler, then point to a couple of meat-on-a-sticks and you have a very tasty lunch. Chilly day? Buy your instant ramen and take it to the hot water dispenser. Just make sure there’s cafe seating in the store or a park nearby. Japanese people never eat on the street.

Department store food halls. Big department stores flank or top most of Japan’s big train stations (often owned by the railway company). In the basement, usually, is an incredible variety of food counters selling delicious ready-to-eat food of all kind. Here you’ll find a much wider variety of grilled or fried meats, sushi, bento boxes, and croissants and similar pastries that rival anything in Paris. The bakery areas often have savory pastries like curry puffs or ham croissants that are great for eating on the (intercity) trains. See something odd and intriguing, like dried fish or seaweed chips? Have a 100-gram taste. But, again, where to eat your goodies? Many department stores will have a “park” on the roof, with playground equipment, and often, picnic tables.

Supermarkets. Even big supermarkets often have good ready-to-eat food. The market is single people taking supper home, but after a tiring day you may find it convenient to just take something to the store’s cafe seating area, or back to your hotel room. If you visit Himeji Castle, or similar areas where lots of locals picnic, the nearby supermarkets will have lots of options to cater to this market.

Japanese curry. Meat in delicious spicy gravy, served next to rice. Don’t think of Indian curry; think of salisbury steak with extra yumminess. Choose your spice level when you order. CoCo’s is the big chain, but you can find it nearly everywhere. At some places, you buy a ticket from a vending machine and hand it to the counter attendant; no language skills needed.

100-yen shops. Japan is not an inexpensive place, and bargains are not easy to find. A big exception are the three chains of 100-yen shops: Daiso, Seria, and CanDo. Daiso is now known around the world for the useful little housewares and gadgets, and even gloves and belts—all for ¥100! Seria is much more fashion-conscious, with design central to many of the things they sell. The largest Daiso (66,000 sq. ft.!) is near Keisei Funabashi station in Chiba. More convenient, with lots of stuff perfect for gifts and souvenirs, is the one at DiverCity. Seria stores are a little harder to find, often on upper floors of shopping centers, or even within other stores. CanDo has even fewer locations, but some unique merchandise.

Stationery stores. If you like art supply stores, they’re still big in Japan. I never miss visiting the eight floors of Sekaido, just 1000 feet due east of Shinjuku Station. In central Tokyo (Ginza), there’s the more upscale G. Itoya. Stationery and other handcrafts are the focus of Tokyu Hands stores, with many locations throughout Japan. These are also great sources for souvenirs that the recipients can use everyday.

Souvenirs. You’ll also find cool souvenirs—including pencils shaped like subway trains—at the Tokyo Subway merchandise shop in the Ikebukuro Station shopping concourse. The Ekitetsu Pop Shop in Divercity Tokyo (Odaiba) sells all kinds of wonderful train-themed toys—including chopsticks shaped like shinkansen. Though we have Uniqlo stores in the US, some of the Tokyo locations are huge. For manga and anime-themed stuff, Akihabara is the district. Japan’s discount store is Don Quijote: snack foods, kitchen stuff, toys, funny socks, costumes, underwear with hilarious English labels.

For the railfan. Japan is heaven for the rail transport buff. The subway isn’t especially notable compared to others around the world, unless you’re interested in operational details, like through-running of suburban trains. Much more interesting is riding the above-ground JR lines, including the Yamanote Line that encircles Tokyo, and the Shuo line that cuts through the middle. There’s a new trainwatcher’s plaza (with a statue of a Suica penguin) at the south end of Shinjuku Station.

Coastline circle trip. For an afternoon excursion, you may enjoy a circle trip: a limited or express JR train southwest via Yokohama to Ofuna. There, transfer to the Shonan monorail (no Suica accepted), riding above the suburban streets—and through hills—to Enoshima. There switch to the historic Enoshima Electric Railway along the coast, watching the surf crash on the beach or stopping at the Giant Buddha, a short walk uphill from Hase Station, and back east to Kamakura. There you can catch JR back to Tokyo.

I loved my first and only visit to Japan. Don’t know if I know enough to offer much advice, but…

  • Kanji and kana are really hard, and you need a pretty good reason to learn them. I enjoyed speaking very basic Japanese, though. Some apps can read Japanese for you.

  • In Tokyo, eat as many meals as possible at Sushi Zanmai, a high end chain — order the mainly all-tuna lunch ($15) or dinner ($30). Other restaurants specialize in bar food, yakitori, steak, organ meats, chicken, ramen, noodles. There are about 30 types of Japanese restaurants, not cheap, but worth it.

  • Skiing in Japan was great, but September may be too early.

  • Japanese people reserve all their hotels, restaurant meals, etc. weeks in advance. This is not my style and was annoying, since things fill up quickly.

  • Kyoto is very special. Be prepared to walk for hours. I didn’t go to Osaka but heard it can be missed on a quick tour.

  • Tokyo is really big, with a wonderful subway, run by two different companies. Get the daily card which lets you go on the subways of either line. I found some of the hyped tourist districts did not appeal to me. I thought the shrines, museums and parks were really great.

  • Anthony Boursain loved the Golden Gai region of Tokyo, and I really enjoyed drinking there. Very cool, very specialized, very eccentric pubs.