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A Guide for First Time Travelers to Japan

There is, no doubt, an American obsession with Japan. Shoot, I found out just today that Japanese is the 3rd most studied language on Duolingo (I'm in that statistic)!


This Japan obsession only deepens when one actually visits. Seriously, ask any American (or maybe any Westerner) who's been, and they will become as starry-eyed as an anime character who just saw their crush or a bowl of their favorite ramen.



I am no exception. Since my first trip there in September 2017, I had vowed to return one day, this time for cherry blossom season. That dream was finally realized in April 2023! Between 2017 and 2023, I had visited 23 countries, and Japan remained my favorite!


In Japan, cherry blossom season spans mid March to end of April most years, with southern Japan blooming earlier than northern Japan. According to the 2024 Live Japan forecast, plan to be in Tokyo on March 29th and work your way west to Kyoto/Osaka for peak blooms!


2023 was an extremely popular time for Japan tourism, I'd even bet THE most popular time in their history, as Japan had just re-opened for visa-free tourism in October 2022. My IG feed was flooded with Japan travel content from other bloggers and friends, alike!


I suspect 2024 will be no different, so I wanted to share tips to help YOU plan your trip to Japan, hopefully in 2024!

In 2023, I spent 9 days in Japan and explored 4 cities: Tokyo and Kyoto (return cities) and Osaka and Mount Fuji (new cities).



My very first tip would be NOT to do this!! By day 4, my body was completely shot, ankles fried from all the walking because I am a crazy person who will continue on, no matter how tired I am...because time is limited!


I would instead suggest at least 3 days per city, so 12 days for my itinerary above, otherwise cut out one city.


Tokyo and Kyoto are a MUST for first-timers to get the overall essence of Japan, from the bustling, futuristic city of Tokyo to the more traditional Kyoto with shrines, temples, and geishas.


Then, choose Osaka if you're an adventurous foodie and enjoy city life, plus it's easy to access from Kyoto. Or choose Mount Fuji if you enjoy nature, are dying to see it, and the season is favorable (Nov - Feb has the clearest skies for unobstructed views of Mt. Fuji)! However, going to and from Mt. Fuji will require going back through Tokyo, no matter how you try to arrange your itinerary.


I will write detailed posts on my experience in each city, but for now I will share:


Overall Tips when Traveling to Japan!


Before You Go:


  • If going to multiple cities, buy your Japan Rail Pass in advance. Have the voucher mailed to your house at least one month in advance. You will exchange it for the pass once in Japan. Different sites sell them for different prices. I found the cheapest price on Klook. Due to the recent price hike in JR Pass, if you're only visiting Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto, skip the JR Pass and just buy one-way/roundtrip shinkansen tickets.

  • Kyoto is 30 mins from Osaka by train (and costs 580 JPY or $4 USD). If including Osaka in your itinerary, I recommend roundtrip shinkansen tickets from Tokyo to Osaka, and making Osaka your home base. Take day trips to Kyoto, Kobe, Nara, and other places nearby.

  • Book as many things in advance as you can, especially in Tokyo! Examples: Pokémon Café, Shibuya Sky observatory, Mario Kart rental, Ghibli Museum, etc. all sold out before I arrived. Luckily I did get Shibuya Sky tickets at sunset two months in advance (also on Klook). I'm not sure when the hype for Japan will die down, but better safe than to travel all that way and miss out.

  • Bring an outlet converter to plug in your non-Japanese electronics.

  • Learn simple Japanese phrases. These are the ones I used the most:

English

Japanese

Pronunciation

Hello

Konnichiwa

KON-ni-chi-wa

Thank You

Arigato gozaimasu

a-di-GA-to go-ZA-ee-mas

Excuse me

Sumimasen

SU-mee-ma-SEN)

Where is the train station?

Eki wa doko desu ka

EH-kee wa DO-ko des ka

How much is this?

Kore wa ikura desu ka

KO-day wa ee-KU-da des ka

I suggest looking up YouTube videos of phrases for travelers to Japan or taking a crash course like I did with Japan Society in NYC.



Once in Japan:


  • When withdrawing from ATMs, DECLINE the conversion to USD. Let your bank do the conversion to save on fees.

  • Give yourself at LEAST one hour to buy any rail tickets, even if you have a Japan Rail pass. You will STILL NEED TO USE IT to obtain your ticket in the station. The kiosks are confusing, the lines to the counter can be long, and I missed several trains one day.

  • The Japanese respect each other's peace and the law - things I really enjoyed about Japan! Be quiet on trains, and don't cross the street until the light changes.

  • Carry a plastic bag with you for trash, as you won't find public trash cans.

  • Most train stations have lockers for your luggage which is amazing - Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto all had them! You can also find locker storage centers in the streets, as train station lockers fill up quickly.

  • I noticed the Japanese men and women dressed pretty modestly especially in Tokyo. With the exception of young people in Harajuku, everyone wore neutrals, and I never saw shoulders, cleavage, or knees, even on warm days. This is not to say you need to dress that way, but it may help you when packing.

  • In Tokyo, the subway closes at MIDNIGHT, even on weekends. Stay in a lively area like Shibuya or Shinjuku if you want to stay out later. Ubers are pretty expensive.

  • When at temple/shrines, cleanse your hands and mouth at the fountains provided. Also don't bow with your hands together. That is not a Japanese thing, and you'll look silly. Hands by your side is fine.

  • Absolutely buy food from a 7-Eleven and a fast food restaurant. McDonald's had a teriyaki burger with poached egg!



Where to find cherry blossoms in Japan:


The answer is EVERYWHERE! But honestly, it'll be harder NOT to find cherry blossoms everywhere you turn in Tokyo. I also saw tons in Osaka, Kyoto, and at our hotel in Mt. Fuji, as well as at the top of Mount Fuji Panoramic Ropeway. (Un)fortunately, by the time I reached Kyoto, I had seen so many cherry blossoms that it wasn't worth tracking where to find them.


But I will share my favorite cherry blossom spots in Tokyo, so stay tuned for more Japan! Subscribe below to be notified when I post next!

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