A Japan Travel Guide
Japan is a country of contrasts. From the snowy northern reaches of Hokkaido to the subtropical islands of Okinawa. From the historic shrines and castles of the feudal towns to the futuristic electronic superstores in Tokyo. And as a foodie, who could ignore the contradictions of a simple bowl of rice that must remain completely unadorned to the complex and perfectly balanced traditional kaiseki-ryōri menu.
You are never quite sure what to expect next in Japan but it’s almost certainly going to be an experience you won’t forget in a hurry. We love to travel in Japan, to share what we’ve seen and planned our own future trips – we hope this Japan Travel Guide will be helpful to you too.
If you’re here in the early stages of planning your trip you may want to browse the full content – you can click the link to head directly to our archive of travel in Japan articles to browse for inspiration. However, there are now hundreds of posts on this incredible country so if you scroll down below we’ll group it into regions and categories that should help you find what you are looking for much faster.
If you’re looking for something specific you can also try the search function. There’s a magnifying glass icon at the top right of every page to start searching and articles have a search widget in the sidebar. Just type a word or a phrase and it will return the nearest matches.
If you’re really stuck or have specific questions about Japan travel you can get in touch through our contact us page or leave a comment below or the relevant posts. We try to respond to all comments within 48 hours.
Where to visit in Japan
From the big cities to the small towns, regional cities, onsen towns, ski villages and island beach resorts there is so much to discover in Japan. These are some of our favourite destinations to travel to in Japan, with linked articles on things to do, what to see, self-guided walking tours, best spots for foodies and more. Just click the button to view content from that region.
Tips on Transport in Japan
We have a range of posts to help you get around in Japan and understand the value and convenience of different transport options. We suggest you start out with the top tips section that provides an overview of transport in Japan.
If you have been researching for your trip to Japan you will probably have heard about the Japan Rail Pass and a variety of opinions on it. While there are a few ‘rules of thumb’ to guide you, it’s not an insignificant cost and well worth putting a little time into considering whether a Japan Rail Pass is right for you and your itinerary. Unless you are staying in and around one city, in which case the JR Pass is not for you, I highly suggest you roughly plan out your time in each city and any major day trips you plan to do from each then read the article. It can be the best deal of your whole trip or it might be an unnecessary expense.
The Tokyo subway is well worth getting your head around early in your stay in the city. It’s fantastic, a clean, efficient and cost-effective way to get around but at first glance, the subway map can be a little daunting. Reading our guide on getting around like a local on the Tokyo subway will have you hopping on and off with confidence.
You will likely use a mix of transport options in Osaka. The subway and trains from Japan Rail and private networks are all very useful depending on where you are staying and where you are going. The Osaka Amazing Pass can be worth checking out if you have a couple of days in the city providing entry to many of the main attractions and several transport options included.
If you are having a night at the Hakone onsens or making a day trip from Tokyo the Hakone Freepass can represent good value, we have a full explanation of the pass and a suggested course to get around all the attractions in the linked article.
Japan Cultural & Travel tips for visitors
The heritage and culture of Japan are major drawcards for tourists. Knowing something about the traditions and festivities you are likely to spot on your travels can add significantly to the enjoyment of the trip.
Buddhist Temples and Shinto Shrines are primarily places of worship but many also hold significant interest for both domestic and international visitors. Visitors are welcome and are not expected to worship. Understanding what happens in Shinto Shrine and the etiquette for visiting one may make the visit more interesting.
At the larger shrines, you may spot a wedding procession or ceremony in progress. The elaborate wedding kimono of Japanese brides are absolutely stunning and we explain a few of the key elements in this post so you can spot them and tell them apart from other opulent ceremonial kimonos you may occasionally see worn in a shrine such as those worn by Geisha in the shrines during events such as Setsubun or other women taking part in ceremonies such as Kenka-sai at Fushimi Inari.
Celebrating the New Year in Japan is one of the most important holidays of the year and one where many Japanese will return to their hometown and extended families. Around the New Year, you may notice a number of attractions and restaurants are closed because of this. Bullet trains can also be especially busy so try to book a little ahead if you can.
Which Season to Visit Japan
In our local sub-tropical climate the seasons aren’t clearly defined so it’s such a novelty to experience them in Japan. They are each unique and something to celebrate, not just for the change in weather but you’ll find the natural landscape, the festivals and the styles of food are all quite different.
There is no right time and it can be hard to choose when to visit with some many attractions in each. Spring in Japan brings cherry blossoms, hanami gatherings beneath the trees, and sakura-flavoured drinks and sweets. While the peak lasts only for a matter of days all stages are a cause for celebration from bud burst to the dramatic peak flowering to hazakura when the petals fall and leaves begin to burst.
Many other flowers follow the sakura and each is dramatic in its own way including the wisteria which forms flowering tunnels at popular spots like Ashikaga flower park and baby blue eyes which bloom in drifts in parks like Showa Kinen in Tokyo.
During Summer in Japan it can be very hot and humid. Modern shopping centres, hotels and public transport are air-conditioned but many restaurants and shops aren’t so be prepared with plenty of drinks and a fan. Summer also brings rain making the landscape very green and Japanese gardens and parks are arguably at their most beautiful. During summer there are a lot of festivals and fireworks, and young Japanese women will often attend dressed in colourful yakata which is a simpler and lighter version of the traditional kimono.
Autumn in Japan is one of our favourite seasons to visit. The autumn leaves in their jewel tones are stunning both in formal gardens and wild on the hillsides, they have a longer season than sakura and it is possible to see a great display from mid-November to early December around the major cities including Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Hiroshima. The season extends earlier as you go north and later as you head south into Kyushu Island.
There are fewer celebrations and events at this time of year but the gardens and parks are looking great. It is warm enough to be out dressed in light layers most days but cool enough to walk for miles every day without overheating.
The Winter in Japan varies significantly from north to south. In Hokkaido and northern Honshu, there is thick snow layered on the ground during winter and a variety of snow-based activities and festivals. The soft powder snow and well-maintained runs make the ski resorts throughout the area popular with skiers and snowboarders from around the world.
Through the more central cities of Tokyo, Yokohama, Nagoya, Kyoto, Osaka and Hiroshima snow falls only occasionally and it rarely sits on the ground for more than a few hours. Winters are cold enough to require a heavy winter coat and parks and gardens are generally quite brown and bare until the plum blossom bursts again in February. It’s the perfect time for a short break to an onsen town to soak in the hot and therapeutic water.
Festivals & Events in Japan
There are so many fabulous festivals in Japan and they are a great way to interact with the local community. They also provide an opportunity to learn a little about the history and culture of the country. This link will take you to a full list of our festival and event posts or you can follow the links below to some of the more popular ones.
- Setsubun Eve celebrations in Kyoto and all about the spring Setsubun celebration across the country
- Held at Kiyomiudera Temple Seiryu-e acknowledges the dragon of the eastern hills that protects Kyoto
- The Nagahama Matsuri is a truly local festival with an interesting history in a small historic castle town during April but is also worth a visit during February for Bonbai.
- The Sapporo Snow Festival and Otaru Snow Gleaming are winter festivals on the northern island of Hokkaido
- In shrines in mid-November, you may notice a special festival for the 3, 5 and 7-year-olds who attend in their tiny kimono.
- Major festivals like the Sapporo snow festival are well worth getting along to for their scale and drama but smaller localised events are also worth including such as the nearby Otaru Snow Gleaming.
An Adventure in Japanese Food
Finally one of the essentials of travel is to enjoy, or at least try, the local cuisine. In Japan there are so many dishes that I love, a handful I was happy to try once or twice and very very occasionally something that I choose not to eat such as at the whale meat restaurant in an arcade near Odori Park in Sapporo.
Foodie markets are held all across the country and are great places to explore the food culture and try some specialty local ingredients and dishes. We have enjoyed a range of Japanese food markets and highly recommend getting to the Nishiki market in Kyoto, Kuramon Market in Osaka and Hakodate Seafood Market in Hokkaido.
For a few more ideas for the foodie traveller, you might find these articles helpful
- Omen Restaurant in Gion
- The tea lovers guide to Japanese tea
- A tea ceremony in Kyoto hosted by a Geisha
- Understanding and booking a tea ceremony in Japan
- The delicious dishes you must try in Kyoto
- 20 street foods to enjoy in Japan and where to find them
- A food tour in the heritage Gion area of Kyoto
- Street food and izakaya tour in Asakusa in Tokyo
- Exploring Japanese food culture in Ueno, Tokyo