This Is A Great Time To Explore Japan
Having journeyed through Japan on numerous occasions, I’ve been fortunate to uncover hidden gems and cultural nuances that make this country so enchanting. Read on for insider tips, essential travel advice, and personal experiences that will help you make the most of your visit to the Land of the Rising Sun, whether you’re a first-time traveler or a returning explorer.
Geography and Weather
Japan is often compared to California since they have similar landmasses. In reality, Japan is much more like the East Coast of the United States. As you can see in the image to the left, Japan has a similar length and orientation as the East Coast – with weather to match.
Tokyo’s climate, for example, is like Washington, DC, with hot, humid summers, while the winters are cold with an occasional snowstorm. January is the coldest month, with temperatures averaging about 50 degrees, while August is the hottest, with an average of 86 degrees.
Japan is comprised of four main islands, which – from north to south – are Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu. The good news is that many of the most popular sites visited by first-timers are clustered in the center of the island of Honshu, home to Tokyo, Kyoto, Yokohama, Osaka, Nara, Kobe, Niigata, Himeji, and Mt. Fuji.
Things to See and Do
Japan offers a unique blend of ancient traditions and modern innovations. Japan offers an incredible array of palaces, shrines, temples, museums, and gardens, as well as endless opportunities to eat and shop. (Japan also has more observation wheels, platforms, and towers than any other country I’ve visited.)
Here are some of the best places for first-time visitors:
- Tokyo, the capital city, is a showcase of Japan’s energy and diversity, ranging from the neon-lit streets of Shinjuku and Shibuya to the historic temples, shrines, and gardens of Asakusa and Ueno, to the pop culture hubs of Akihabara and Harajuku. Tokyo offers some of the world’s best food, whether it’s sushi, udon, yakatori, ramen, or street snacks. Tokyo is also a great base for exploring nearby attractions, such as Mount Fuji, Hakone, Kamakura – and Tokyo Disneyland!
- Kyoto reveals the traditional and spiritual side of Japan. Kyoto was the imperial capital of Japan for over a thousand years, and it preserves many of the country’s cultural treasures and heritage sites. Kyoto’s temples and gardens include Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Pavilion), Kiyomizu-dera (the Pure Water Temple), and Arashiyama Bamboo Grove. You can also experience the geisha culture in Gion district or enjoy a tea ceremony.
- Osaka is Japan’s second-largest city, and is famous for its food, especially its street food, such as takoyaki (octopus balls), okonomiyaki (savory pancakes), and kushikatsu (deep-fried skewers). You can also visit attractions such as Osaka Castle, Dotonbori Canal, the Osaka Aquarium, and Universal Studios Japan. Kyoto and Nara are each about one hour from Osaka, and you can easily stay in Osaka and make day trips to those cities.
- Hiroshima, another popular city, was the first city to suffer an atomic bombing in 1945 and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum serves as a symbol of peace and resilience. Other attractions include Hiroshima Castle, Shukkei-en Garden, and the Mazda Museum.
- Nara was the first permanent capital of Japan in the 8th century and is home to some of Japan’s oldest and most impressive temples and shrines. Nara is also known for the friendly deer that roam freely in Nara Park and bow to visitors for food. Nara’s attractions include Todai-ji (the Great Eastern Temple), Kasuga Taisha (the Bright Shrine), and Horyu-ji (the Temple of the Flourishing Law), the world’s oldest wooden building.
As I mentioned, Japan has countless observation platforms, towers, and wheels. Two notable examples are the Tokyo Tower, built in 1958 and inspired by the Eiffel Tower, and the free Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building Observatory, located on the 45th floor of Tokyo’s “city hall.”
Japan’s currency is the yen, and the exchange rate is currently about US$1.00 = Y140. Common banknotes are Y1,000, Y5,000, and Y10,000, while coins come in one-yen, five-yen, 10-yen, 50-yen, 100-yen, and 500-yen denominations.
Credit cards are widely accepted – except when they’re not. While I was able to use credit cards or debit cards at staffed locations such as stores, restaurants, and train stations, they generally did not work at kiosks selling train or subway tickets, admission tickets., etc. Instead, I found myself using a surprising amount of cash. Which leads to the next issue.
Surprisingly, most Japanese ATMs do not accept non-Japanese ATM cards. Your best option is the “7 Bank” ATMs, which are owned by a bank operated by the same company that owns Japan’s 7-11 convenience stores. These ATMs are located in most 7-11 stores, which are generally open 24-hours per day. 7 Bank ATMs are also located at Japan’s major airports and train stations. Another option is the Japan Post’s ATMs. However, most of the post offices are open only Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.
Bottom line: Find a 7 Bank ATM as soon as you arrive in Japan and withdraw some cash.
People and Places
More than any country I’ve visited, the Japanese are unfailingly polite, helpful, and respectful. The cities are quiet and clean, and you’ll seldom hear a honking honk or a loud car. People wait patiently for green walk signs and never cross against a red light.
Businesses open later than in the U.S., with many shops, restaurants, and attractions opening at 10 am, and restaurants and bars remaining open to 11 p.m. or later.As an early riser, getting an early morning cup of coffee was a challenge. Luckily, I found a Starbucks just a few blocks from the hotel that opened at 7 a.m.
I visited Japan for business trips countless times back in the 80s and 90s. The business people with whom I met spoke fluent English and were available to help me with any logistical issues, such as checking into hotels, ordering in restaurants, or arranging transportation.
So I was surprised 25 years later, to discover how few people speak English. While some studies estimate that about 30% of Japanese people speak English, only about 5% speak it fluently. In Tokyo, many Japanese people speak some English and you’ll find many signs in Japanese and English. However, as you travel away from Tokyo and especially into smaller towns, fewer Japanese speak English, and you’ll find fewer bilingual signs.
The good news is that it’s still pretty easy to travel, dine and visit attractions.
- Whether you’re taking the train, subway, or bus, you’ll be able to use kiosks that include an English-language option and bilingual signage is almost universal.
- The same is true of most attractions, including museums, temples, shrines, etc., which offer multi-language tickets kiosks (cash works better than credit cards), and the ticket windows generally have a bilingual price list to which you can point.
- Ordering in restaurants – ranging from fast food to elegant white-tablecloth restaurants – is surprisingly easy as menus in most of them offer photographs of most menu items, to which you can simply point.
I stayed at several hotels throughout Japan on my most recent visit and discovered that while front desk staff are extremely helpful, their knowledge of English is quite limited, and they often speak just enough English to manage very basic questions. I found that Google Translate, or a similar phone app, to be very helpful in those cases.
Hotels in Japan are plentiful and many – by US standards – are quite affordable. Japanese hotel rooms, however, are typically about half the size of US hotel rooms.
Most large cities feature hotels belonging to both Japanese and U.S. chains that feature Western-style accommodations, and you can often find significant savings when you join one of the Japanese chains’ free membership programs.
Japan also offers ryokans, which are traditional Japanese-style inns with tatami mats and traditional Japanese baths, and often serve dinner and breakfast. Minshuku are similar but less expensive and are essentially Japanese-style bed-and-breakfasts that may also include dinner.
As with Japanese restaurants, tips are not expected or accepted.
Once you’ve decided which cities to visit, you’ll then need to decide in which area or neighborhood to stay. In San Francisco, you might choose between Fisherman’s Wharf, Union Square, or Nob Hill. In Tokyo, some of the choices include Shinjuku, Shibuya, Roppongi, and Ginza.
Assuming you’ll be using public transportation, you can also decide if you want to be close to a major train station or just a local subway or train stop.
- Large train stations serve dozens of train and subway lines, making it easy to get almost anywhere in your city or in Japan. The stations are mini-cities, with hotels, restaurants, retail stores, and much more. And they are often located in the center of major neighborhoods, offering even more hotels, restaurants, and retail stores. However, they can be overwhelming. During my recent visit, I stayed at a hotel near Shinjuku Station – the world’s busiest train station serving 3.6 million travelers per day. The station covers about 15 acres, serves 12 different train and subway lines, features 53 different platforms, and has 200 separate exits. As you can imagine, making your way through the station can be very confusing. I sometimes found it easier to exit to the street, get my bearings, and then re-enter the station.
- Subway stations may serve just one or two subway lines, which you can use to reach one of the major stations, where you can transfer to a different line. These stations are often located in smaller, quieter neighborhoods. Be aware that you may need to make a connection in one of Japan’s huge stations, where you’ll still need to find your way around.
Dining in Japan is great for three reasons:
- The food is wonderful!
- The menu prices are exactly what you pay. No taxes or services charges, and tips are not expected or accepted.
- Most menus include photos of each item, so you know exactly what you’re getting, and can just point to it to order.
Western food is widely available in Japan, ranging from every well-known fast-food chain to upscale restaurants, and many hotels have Western restaurants.
Be aware that beef is VERY expensive. Menu prices are often quoted as “Yen per 100 grams,” and a steak dinner can easily cost $75–$200 US.
Japan has an excellent network of trains, subways, buses, and taxis, which you can use to easily reach almost any destination you choose. Here’s more information on each:
Trains: Trains are the most popular and widely used form of public transit in Japan, and include Shinkansen (Bullet Train), JR trains, and private railroads. Given the number of sometimes confusing options, it’s worth doing some research about the available choices. Google Maps is very helpful in exploring options in advance, as well as guiding you step by step while you’re in transit.
Shinkansen are the famous bullet trains that run at speeds of up to 320 km/h (nearly 200 mph) and connect Japan’s major cities and regions. They are fast, comfortable, and VERY punctual, and they offer a great way to travel long distances in a short time. In my experience, the Shinkansen is often faster, less expensive, and more convenient than flying, as the stations are located in the city centers and don’t require security screening.
Here is some helpful information about riding them:
- You must purchase a rail pass before arriving in Japan. You can choose from several types of passes, depending on your itinerary and budget.
- Most of the seats on each train require reservations, although each train has one or two cars with open seating. You can book a seat reservation online or at the JR counter at the station. As with hotels, JR clerks may speak only a limited amount of English. Larger stations allow you to reserve seats using a kiosk, but they’re not very user-friendly.
- Despite traveling at 200 mph, the journeys are surprisingly scenic, and you may catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji when arriving or leaving Tokyo.
- You can buy food and drinks onboard, but the selection may be limited. You can also bring your own snacks and bento boxes, which you can buy in the station before you board the train.
- Several types of trains are available, such as the Nozomi express train, which is the fastest and most frequent, or the Kodama, which stops at every station. Be aware that JR passes are not accepted on the Nozomi trains.
JR trains: These are the trains operated by Japan Railways (JR), the former national railway company that is now split into regional entities. JR trains cover a large network of local, rapid, and express services that connect urban and rural areas within each region. You can also use a JR Pass or a JR Regional Pass to travel on JR trains for a specific number of days.
Private trains are operated by sixteen private railway companies that often compete with or complement JR trains. Private trains may offer more convenient routes than JR trains, depending on the area and destination. You can’t use a JR Pass or a JR Regional Pass on private trains, but you can often buy other types of passes or tickets for specific companies or regions.
Subways: Subways are the easiest and most convenient way to get around major cities like Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto, and Nagoya. They’re clean, safe, frequent, and easy to use, with signs and announcements in Japanese and English. You can buy tickets from machines (which include an English language mode) or counters at the stations – where English may be limited You can also use an “IC” card (a prepaid rechargeable card) to operate the entry and exit gates. There are several types of IC cards available in different regions, such as Suica, Pasmo, Icoca and Toica, but most of them are compatible with each other across Japan. You can also use a mobile IC card on your smartphone if it supports it.
Buses: Buses are another option for public transit in Japan and can be very useful in smaller cities that have fewer subway lines. Japan’s central train stations often serve as transit centers where you can easily catch buses to destinations throughout each city.
You can buy tickets from kiosks, from drivers on board, or you can use an IC card to pay for the fare. You can often also buy regional passes that are good for local buses, trains, and subways.
Japan also offers highway buses that run between cities and regions. They’re generally slower than Shinkansen or airplanes but may be cheaper than other options. You can buy tickets online, at kiosks, or with some regional transit passes. Highway buses don’t accept IC cards.
Taxis: Taxis are another option for public transit in Japan, especially for short distances or late-night travel. Japanese taxis are safe, reliable, and spotlessly clean. They’re easy to find in larger cities, where they can be hailed on the street, found at taxi stands, or booked via the Go app.
Uber: Ubers in Japan are few and costly, especially compared to taxis, which are plentiful and generally less expensive.
No matter how many times you visit, Japan always has something fresh to discover, and I hope my experiences will enhance your travels in this remarkable country.