If you’re looking to travel somewhere a bit different, Japan is the most accessible and visitor-friendly destination in Asia.
An island nation of 126 million people – 40 million of whom live in the Greater Tokyo region – Japanese culture and history is truly unique, and there’s a little something for everyone. Travelers can experience the contrast between ultra-modern cities and ancient temples, shrines and gardens.
The Japanese archipelago is made up of nearly 7,000 islands. “Mainland Japan” refers to the five main islands: Honshu, Hokkaido, Shikoku, Kyushu and Okinawa.
There has never been a better time to plan a trip across the Pacific. Japan is very safe. (You can both drink the tap water AND flush the toilet paper!) It has excellent public transit and tourist infrastructure. Tokyo will host 2020’s Summer Olympic Games in July, bringing the world’s top athletes and throngs of spectators to the Japanese capital for the first time since Tokyo hosted the 1964 Summer Olympics.
Perhaps you’re worried because you don’t speak Japanese? No problem! Most major cities and areas of interest to travelers have English language signage, literature and dedicated English speaking tourism staff. Restaurants increasingly offer English menus – though it’s a fun challenge to go off the beaten tourist path and embrace the language barrier.
If you decide to go – and really, you should – here are some key points to keep in mind:
Getting to Japan takes a while, but if you are willing to fly out of New York City and book your tickets a few months in advance, you can do so for less than the cost of many domestic trips that depart from the Albany “International” Airport. This does mean you won’t get to use the new I-87 exit 3, but the tradeoff is probably worthwhile.
Flying from NYC is usually about $1,000 cheaper. On our most recent trip in May of 2019, we were able to find Alaska/Singapore Airlines flights from JFK to Tokyo Narita with just one stop in Los Angeles for $760 round-trip.
Nonstop flights from New York to Tokyo are also available on several airlines. But remember: The convenience of a direct flight generally means higher ticket prices.
In stark contrast to upstate New York, even rural areas of Japan are extremely well serviced by trains, buses and taxis. Major cities have subway systems. Generally speaking, public transportation runs on time, with deep bows and apologies if they are even one minute behind schedule.
My favorite way to get around Japan is by train. Japanese rail infrastructure is fantastic, the scenery is gorgeous, and I love the variety of trains. The Shinkansen bullet train travels at speeds up to 180 mph, bringing passengers 320 miles from Tokyo to Kyoto in just over two hours.
The Japan Railways (JR) Group is the largest rail operator in the country, having taken over the government-owned Japanese National Railways in 1987. There are at least 16 other privately owned major railways in Japan, which transport billions of passengers each year.
Many visitors take advantage of the Japan Railways (JR) Rail Pass, which allows unlimited rides on nearly all JR trains for 7, 14 or 21 days and is exclusively available to foreign tourists. JR Rail Passes can be used on shinkansen bullet trains, limited express, rapid, local and sightseeing trains that are operated by Japan Railways.
Before forking over money for a rail pass, use a website like Hyperdia.com to make sure it’s actually less than the cost of anticipated train fare.
Local and smart travelers use rechargeable fare cards like Suica to get around rather than purchasing individual fare tickets. Suica charging stations can be found everywhere, and allow for greater spontaneity when exploring.
Money & Customs
Find an ATM shortly after you land. Japan is still fairly reliant on hard currency outside (and inside) of major cities. The exchange rate fluctuates; right now 100 yen is equivalent to $0.92.
There is no tipping. Anywhere. If you try to leave a tip, the service person will probably try to give it back.
The following are considered rude or strange in Japan but not necessarily here: Blowing your nose in public, eating or smoking while walking, hugging people you just met, talking or complaining loudly.
Drinking culture in Japan is alive, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say “well.” There is a definite connection between working excessively long hours and problem drinking. You can buy beer from vending machines or convenience stores at all hours. In evenings near major train stations, businessmen in black suits can be found cutting loose and throwing back round after round before attempting to stumble onto the last train home.
Drugs of any kind are very illegal in Japan – including several medications that are commonly prescribed here.
On the whole, Japanese people tend to be outwardly polite and helpful to visitors. Most travelers return home with a favorable impression of Japanese hospitality and stories of how a total stranger went out of their way to make them feel welcome.
Guide to Popular Destinations
Tokyo, formerly known as Edo, has been the capital of Japan since the Meiji Restoration in 1868. It is the biggest metropolis in the world, with a seemingly endless sprawl for miles in every direction. For many travelers, Tokyo is their first taste of Japan, and getting lost in the bright lights of neighborhoods like Shinjuku and Akihabara is part of the fun. There is no shortage of things to do and see – and eat. The birthplace of Edo-mae sushi, Tokyo has more Michelin starred restaurants than anywhere else on earth.
Kyoto, home to geisha, thousands of temples, shrines, museums and gardens, is a city of 1.5 million located in the Kansai region on western Honshu. Kyoto is the ancient capital of Japan, so rich with history and World Heritage sites that the United States took it out of the running for atomic bomb targets. A visit here is a must to experience Japan’s traditional side. Kyoto gets maddeningly crowded with tourists, so your best bet is to hit the major sights first thing in the morning.
Osaka is a busy port city known as “Japan’s kitchen.” Famous dishes include takoyaki (grilled octopus balls), okonomiyaki (savory pancake), and all sorts of fried foods. Osaka is known for being a down to earth and friendly place, especially in comparison to Kyoto and Tokyo formality. Nightlife here is amazing, and the Osaka Aquarium is one of the world’s best.
Nara, southeast of Osaka, rightly deserves more than the half day that most visitors allow – but if you have a few hours to spare in Kansai, it is very accessible and unique. Nara was the capital of Japan from 710 to 784 A.D., the Nara Period. Nara Park, a short walk from either train station, is home to more than 1,000 sacred Sika deer and several of Japan’s most important Buddhist temples. Do not miss Todaiji Temple and the Great Buddha inside!
Nearly all the way to the west on Honshu island, Hiroshima is an important stop for those who are interested in history and food. This modern city is best known in the United States as one of the cities that was destroyed in the atomic bombing of 1945. Today, visitors can reflect on these events at the Peace Memorial Park and Genbaku (Atomic) Dome. A short ferry ride from Hiroshima is Miyajima island, one of Japan’s top three scenic spots famous for its floating torii gate.
Do you like ramen? If so, don’t miss Fukuoka City on northern Kyushu island, home of tonkotsu ramen. Fukuoka, like Osaka, is generally in less of a hurry than Tokyo, and feels like the California of Japan with nice beaches and great street food. Close to the Asian mainland, Fukuoka is an important travel hub to China, Korea and beyond. The hydrofoil ferry to Busan in South Korea only takes 2-3 hours.
If you really want to get off the beaten track and make the most of a JR Pass, the southernmost shinkansen bullet train stop is Kagoshima City in southern Kyushu. The “Last Samurai” and Satsuma Rebellion leader Saigo Takamori made his famous last stand (sans Tom Cruise) in 1877 at the Battle of Shiroyama in Shiroyama Park, a wild forested area that is home to Japanese pit vipers. Kagoshima sits right beside Sakurajima, the most active volcano in Japan.
Sightseeing & Culture
Individual preference will dictate what you seek out in Japan. However, on a first time visit scavenger hunt, I would classify the below as “do not miss” activities:
Immerse yourself in nature. Japan is 70% mountains and is surrounded by oceans. With Japan’s great public transportation, you can easily hop on a train and be in the middle of a rice paddy in minutes. National parks and backcountry areas require more planning, but are well worth the effort. If you’re on a tight schedule, even big cities have peaceful oases that let you forget you’re surrounded by millions of people.
High quality excursions: From central Tokyo, take a day trip to Mt. Mitake or Mt. Takao for some “forest bathing.” From Osaka, Mino Park is a forested valley on the outskirts of town with waterfalls. Kyoto is not far from Kibune and Kurama, two picturesque towns connected by a hiking trail.
Visit a Shinto shrine. Shinto is a religion native to Japan and centers around belief in kami – roughly translated as “spirits” or “deities” – which are often associated with specific places or natural features. Through Shinto, people seek to live in harmony with kami, and therefore in harmony with the natural world.
Shrines are marked by the presence of orange torii gates and water purification fountains. Shinto is ingrained into everyday life for as high as 90% of the population.
Famous examples: Meiji Shrine in Shibuya, Tokyo, Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto, and Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island near Hiroshima.
Visit a Buddhist temple. Some form of Buddhism is practiced by more than half the population of Japan. Throughout the course of its history, many different uniquely Japanese sects and variants of Buddhism developed. Buddhism peacefully coexists with Shinto, and it is common to find a Shinto shrine at a Buddhist temple.
Nara, the first permanent capital of Japan, is home to many of Japan’s oldest and grandest temples, including Todaiji – the world’s largest wooden building and home to an impressive Buddha statue. Kyoto is home to more than 1,600 temples!
Some famous examples: Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion) and Kiyomizu-dera in Kyoto; Senso-ji in Tokyo.
Marvel at the wonder of convenience stores. Sorry Stewart’s, but nothing domestic can match Japanese convenience stores (konbini). They can be found in almost every city block, the middle of nowhere, and all the commuter towns in between. In addition to serving fresh and prepared food, sweets, liquor, beer, smokes, spare underpants, umbrellas, and fantastic puddings, convenience stores offer bill pay, ticketing, mail and banking services.
I recommend trying to go to all of them – 7-Eleven, Family Mart, Lawson, Mini Stop, Circle K, AMPM, Daily Yamazaki…the list goes on!
Get high (above the ground) and gawk at the view over Tokyo. Tokyo is absolutely massive and makes New York look like a small town. What better way to take this in than from the ~50th floor? It gets smoggy, so wait for a clear day if you have the chance.
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building in central Shinjuku is free, but there’s always a line. We showed up at 8:30 AM and were in the first elevator group up.
Other, less free options for a stellar view include the Mori Tower in Roppongi and Tokyo Skytree in Sumida.
Lose track of time in an electronics store. Big cities in Japan are home to several chains of consumer electronics goods stores, such as Bic Camera, Edion, and Yamada Denki. Walking into any of these stores will guarantee you at least an hour to two hours of amusement, and you’ll probably buy a lot of souvenirs. Make sure to find the massage chairs and try the most expensive one out.
If consumer electronics aren’t your jam, home goods and cute stationery abound at Loft and Tokyu Hands department stores.
Get a haircut. I’m serious. Japanese hairstylists are world renowned for excellent service and skill. Many have trained abroad and have a strong command of English. Plus, you’ll be surprised how affordable they can be – remember, no tipping!