A city coming from the future
The complete Japan travel Guide
Japan is a culture rich, climate-diverse, and forward-thinking country. Japan is a true seductress that invites you to explore every corner and ignites all your senses. There is something special for every season, prefecture, and festival. It is a perfect marriage of tradition and technology, high rises and perfectly landscaped gardens galore! Sure, there are endless crowds but it doesn’t feel claustrophobic. It is as if everyone is engaged in a delicate dance and the only ones with two left feet are the tourists.
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Where is Japan?
The Five Main islands in Japan
Northern island known for its gorgeous landscape, wildlife, volcanoes, and outdoor activities. You can reach Hokkaido by a 4-hour train ride from Tokyo, through a 33-mile underwater tunnel.
The largest and most populous of the five islands, where the capital of Tokyo resides.
Lightly populated region, known for its copper mine, as well as wheat, barley, and citrus fruit production.
This island is nearest to the Asian continent, and home to Mt. Aso, the mountain with the greatest volcanic activity.
Indigenous tribes reside in this southern island, as do large swaths of U.S. Soldiers. This island has a difficult past, but it hasn’t stopped it from having a beautiful future.
Travel to Japan: Quick History
Japan’s history is complicated and spanned long periods of seclusion with periods of influence from Western and Chinese culture. Between the fourth and ninth centuries, Japan was ruled by an Emperor and Imperial Court, based in modern-day Kyoto, its previous capital.
Political power was taken by military dictators known as Shogun. This era of power was enforced by the ever-notorious noble warriors, the Samurai. Following a century’s long civil war in 1603, the country unified under the rule of Tokugawa Shogunate in modern Tokyo. Isolationism was the code of the day until the 1850s when the U.S. forced Japan to open its doors again. It adopted a western-style government, known as the Meiji era, which subsequently brought a time of great industrialism and prosperity. In 1937, the Japanese invaded China and joined the Axis powers of World War 2.
From there, they attacked the Americans at Pearl Harbor and eventually lost the war when the Americans retaliated by dropping the world’s first atomic bombs. Post-war Japan was a time of heartbreak and mourning, yet also a time of rebuilding and modernization on an unprecedented level. They adopted a Constitutional Monarchy with two Legislative Houses, renounced their ability to declare war, and their military would only be used for defense.
Time has seemingly licked old wounds as modern Japan is thriving and has the third-largest GDP in the world. The economy relies heavily on the auto and electronics industry and is considered the fourth largest importer and exporter in the World.
About the Japanese life
When I was traveling in Japan I felt Japanese warm and respectful. They appreciate trade, commerce, and comradery with other nations yet have strict immigration laws. The population is 98% Japanese with few exceptions for expatriates.
The people greatly value higher education and are somewhat defined by their occupation. It is ranked extremely high on the Human Development Index and life expectancy is quite long. Respect between old and young people is part of the culture and they are taking care of each others.
Japanese love to enjoy some time after work after a long 10 hours day. They often go out to enjoy karaoke with friends or meet out around a great lunch!
What is the main religion in Japan?
Shinto is the indigenous religion of Japan but lives harmoniously with Buddhism and Christianity. In fact, during my stay, my tour guide said it is a long-running joke that Japanese citizens are born Shinto, get married as Christians, and die as Buddhists. That said, the Japanese are spiritual people but don’t have to recognize themselves as any one thing.
What's the currency and cost of living?
Japan’s currency is the Yen and the current exchange rate from a single US Dollar is 108.347 Yen (as of Feb 2020).
The cost of living in Japan is high and the space is small and limited. Rent ranges from 35,000 Yen/month for shared spaces and can increase up to 80,000 Yen.
How much money do I need to visit Japan?
Japan isn’t cheap: As you’ve seen prices are very similar to the States.
The amount of money you’ll want to bring varies greatly depending on your preferred accommodation, activities, and food choices. However, there are ways to save. Shopping at supermarkets or farmer’s stalls for food can save a bundle.
There are a lot of small eateries that often costs less to eat daily than shopping. Keep your Google translate handy, as those smaller shops do not typically offer any English translation. Take advantage of all the free activities such as wandering temples, hiking, forest bathing, and garden visits.
How to get to Japan from the U.S?
Japan famously hosts the most densely populated city in the world in its capital of Tokyo.
This bodes well for travelers as it is extremely easy to find a flight to Tokyo from anywhere! I often check the rates on Momondo or Skyscanner. Comparators are a great way to find the cheapest flight! You can easily fly to Osaka as well, a largely populated port city, from NYC, Vegas, and Honolulu.
When is the best time to visit Japan?
The best time to travel to Japan is to see the gorgeous Cherry Blossoms (Sakura), which is the national flower.
Sakura symbolizes the ephemeral nature of life and has also been used as propaganda to rally troops during War times. The season runs as early as January in the northern island of Hokkaido, and as late as May in the Southern islands.
However, if you’re looking for the best bargain, you’ll need to forgot those beautiful blossoms. Bummer…I know. Your best bet is to book in Jan, Sept, and Oct, according to Skyscanner.
It’s no secret that Japan boasts the greatest public transportation systems in the world. You’ll have no issues getting around. Commuter trains, Bullet trains, busses, and taxis are at your disposal and not difficult to figure out.
2020 TRAVELERS TAKE NOTE!
Japan is about to host the 2020 Summer Olympics, set between July 24th- Sept 9th. There will be limited accommodation, and prices will likely be gauged. Unless that is the entire reason for your visit (which is a fantastic reason), you should probably avoid traveling during those dates.
Do I need a visa to go to Japan?
You can stay in Japan Visa Free for up to 90 days as a casual visitor! Be sure to check travel.state.gov for further details on entry and exit requirements based on our country of origin, duration/reason for stay, and any regarding any health and safety concerns.
MY SUPER TIPS:
Follow the country news you will visit soon. This will help you understand if anything is happening and you can already anticipate your departure!
Things to do when you visit Japan!
Kyoto: what to do?
Monkey Park Iwatayama:
Located in Arashiyama, free-roaming snow monkeys or Japanese Macaques, are the very Instagram famous monkeys enjoying a good soak in an Onsen (hot springs). They’re just as fun as you imagine, but be careful, as they will swipe your food and belongings!
Kabuki Theatre in Gion:
As a young girl, I studied Japanese language and culture. That said, I lost my shit when I got to see the classic Kabuki Theatre! It was a wonderful variety show of traditional music, puppet theatre, satire, and a Meiko (Geisha apprentice) dance. I cried. Full-on grown-up tears watching the Meiko’s delicate, mesmerizing moves. It was as if her hands were water, and her body was a sturdy mountain.
My husband was randomly chosen from the audience to partake in a traditional tea ceremony and was treated as their guest of honor. Yes…I was jealous. However, the overall experience was WORTH ALL THE YEN! At least for theatre and culture nerds, like me. Prices range depending on the show, you can visit the official website to get more information here.
Fushimi Inari-taisha Shrine:
Lives up to the hype. Photo ops at every turn. Built-in honor of Inari, the Shinto God of rice. When you think of Japan, this is what you see in your head. There are festivals at the shrine each month. You can check their website to find which celebration is happening during your stay. Be mindful of unique rules such as prohibiting tripod use in narrow paths, taking videos or photos for commercial use, and wearing unusual attire.
Kyoto: what to see?
Sagano Bamboo Forest:
A gorgeous canopy of Bamboo stalks that create a meditative sound so popular it’s considered one of the country’s “100 soundscapes of Japan”.
This famed Golden Pavilion, is truly a sight to behold, as it’s golden sheen glimmers onto the water. Designated as a “National Special Historic Site”, it is a treasure of Japan. Be forewarned, it gets VERY busy.
Nara Park and Todai-ji temple:
EVERYONE should go to Nara and see their famous deer. About 45 minutes from Kyoto, on the Nara line. Buy deer crackers for as low as 150 yen ($1.38) at various vendors throughout the park. These wild deer are incredibly tame and will bow their head to you for a delicious treat. Watch out for the youngsters—cute but oftentimes a bit feisty. Todai-ji temple: Home to the largest bronze statue of Buddha, and headquarters to the Kegon school of Buddhism. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, that is adjacent to Nara Park. Admission is 600 Yen.
Hokkaido: what to do?
Yukigassen or “Snow fight”:
Play a round or watch what can be described as an elaborate snowball fight meets capture the flag. This game is intense, and the Japanese take it seriously. The World Championship is held on Feb 22-23rd of this year and sure to draw the crowds.
Onsen (Volcanic hot springs):
Onsens are sacred to the Japanese, and for good reason. There is no shortage of them throughout Hokkaido, but the IT spot is Noboribetsu. Heal your mind and body but leave your modesty at the door! Guests bathe in the nude and can be in close proximity. Don’t fret, it’s not co-ed!
MY SUPER TIPS:
Cover those tattoos! I was lucky enough to have a gal pal from a tour shower me with Band-Aids to cover mine and enter!
Ski and Snowboard:
The most popular location is Niseko, which averages 600 inches of snow yearly. There are endless resorts all over the island, so you won’t be hurting for powder.
Hokkaido: what to see?
Rainbow meadows of Furano:
Hectares of lush, gorgeous flowers that are unlike any you’ve seen before.
Hokkaido Nature Trail:
2849 miles of trail to trek with glaciers, volcanoes, lakes, and forest!
Unkai Terrace (Sea of Clouds):
If you can afford some luxury, you must see the Unkai Terrace to witness the panoramic view of the Hidaka and Tokachi Mountains, with its sea of clouds. Must be a patron of the Hoshino Resort Tomamu, which starts at roughly 38,500 Yen ($354).
Tokyo: what to do?
Kawaii Monster Café:
Built to represent Harajuku itself, it is a palace of fetish and wonder. Want to immerse yourself in the weird that IS Tokyo—this is a good place to start. Admission Is 550 Yen ($5.50) and increases depending on the meal plan.
Borderless Museum by Teamlab:
This is an EXPERIENCE! It’s a psychedelic trip, without bodily harm. 3D pictures literally surround you and move with you. It is sensory overload, and you’ll love every minute of it! Buy tickets ahead of time, because it can sell out. Adult tickets- 3200 yen ($29.54), children 1000 yen ($9.23).
Ah, the famed fish market…Soak up local culture and try all the ocean delights you can handle!
Tokyo: what to see?
Immerse yourself in Samurai history, which is pure touristy fun. The museum costs $16.95
This is Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple, completed in 645. Vibrant and loud, yet a great dive into Tokyo and its history on your first day.
THE spot for Cherry Blossom bathing and picnics in Tokyo. This enormous park boasts not only 1000 cherry trees, but also lush French and English gardens and a grand greenhouse. Admission is $500 Yen.
Prepare your trip to Japan
What to bring in your suitcase?
- If you’re planning to island-hop—bring layers! The climate will change, and you’ll want a jacket one moment, and a tank top the next.
- Wear comfy walking shoes that are easy to slip on and off.
- Power Converter. Pretty standard when you travel the world!
- Athletic tape (or similar) to cover tattoos if you have them.
What and where to eat?
Hyotei $$ – This traditional and Michelin Starred restaurant resides in the old Gion district. Grab dinner here before or after you visit the Kabuki theatre, but try to make reservations.
Beef Shabu Sukiyaki Zen $-$$ – Kobe/Wagyu Beef that melts in your mouth, AND all you can eat!!! Do I Need I say more?
Narisawa $$$ – Very expensive French and Japanese Fusion delights. If Gastronomy and food art is your thing, this will be your spot.
Uobei Shibuya Dogenzaka $ – For affordable and delicious seafood, head to Uobei in the Shibuya center.
Dear Alyne Super Tips
- Don’t walk and eat at the same time. It is considered rude. Even at vendor stands, stay and eat at the stand.
- Never stab your chopsticks upright into your food. It is polite to lay chopsticks down across your bowl/plate. This symbolizes death.
- Queue on the left, walk on the right.
- A polite, “sumimasen” (excuse me) to receive service at most restaurants/bars.
- Take all your trash with you back to your hotel/residence! There are little to no bins in public areas, and all residents respect the space and do not litter or make a mess.
- No talking on commuter trains. Everyone is busy and likely reading, doing homework, or generally minding their own business.
- Be mindful of locations that wish for you to remove shoes, leave umbrellas in provided stands in reception areas, and follow pedestrian and cycling regulations.
- Ramen spots (and others) often require you to order at a machine. It is very confusing. There is no way around that. Order first, based on the picture of what you want, and a ticket will print for you. You’ll then take the ticket to the cooking window in a queue. Additionally, there are incredible vending machines throughout Japan that serve anything from ice cream to yakisoba or even ramen that cooks inside the machine.
Beer and cigarettes are vended as well for those that fancy that.
- Yukata (robes) are tied together from the left side over the right. Do not mess this up, as tying it the opposite way is strictly for funerals.
- If you’re feeling lucky and want to risk your money, try Pachinko. Pachinko is a gambling mechanism similar to slot machines and pinball. To say Pachinko is “popular” is a severe understatement. According to Wikipedia, although technically illegal, as of 2015, Pachinko generated more gambling revenue than Las Vegas, Singapore, and Macau combined! Go with locals so they can walk you through the legal gray areas…
- You’ll notice random unlocked bikes laying about. This is not an invitation to take as a communal bike. The Japanese are very trustworthy and there is little fear of theft.
- The Japanese people believe in reciprocation. If given a gift, one should always return the favor.