How to Plan a Trip to Japan

how to plan a Japan trip

Japan is one of my favorite places to visit, but planning our trip to Japan can be quite a massive undertaking. From picking the right time of the year to visit to booking restaurants and buying train tickets, I’ve written down the best way on how to plan a Japan trip below including all the things we wish we knew before planning or visiting Japan.

All of this planning was necessary to dine the places we did. See our post on the best restaurants in Tokyo, the best things to do in Tokyo, as well as the best things to do in Kyoto. All of this would have been much harder or impossible to schedule and experience without proper planning!

Plan at least 6 months ahead

I would highly recommend booking your trip at least 6 months in advance (if not more). If you can’t buy tickets this early, I would still begin planning ahead of time because many restaurants, experiences, and activities will have specific release dates that may be as early as 6 months in advance.

  • Flights: usually available 6-12 months ahead. ZipAir runs out of full-flat seats 2-3 months ahead. 
  • Restaurants: if you like fine dining restaurants, the most popular ones book up 3-6 months in advance.
  • Hotels: I recommend at least 3-6 months ahead (earlier if you want to use a hotel concierge to your advantage to book restaurants). We booked 3 months in advance, and rooms didn’t run out, but options definitely were noticeably starting to thin out.

Trip planning tools

Use these planning tools to ease the stress of planning a trip to Japan.

Wanderlog

  • Premade guides – gives you suggestions on popular tourist spots and restaurants 
  • Detailed organizer – it keeps detailed notes of all your information, like everyone’s flights, hotel stays, budget and costs, itinerary, and more. 
  • Visual mapping – it also has a handy map to help you visualize your itinerary or other places you’ve saved. 
  • Mobile app – there’s also a mobile app that comes in handy during your trip. 

Reddit

  • r/JapanTravel – people help critique your itinerary and add suggestions. It also has an extensive guide under the community info for almost every situation you’ll encounter. 
  • r/JapanTravelTips – gives basic tips and suggestions on making the best out of your trip

TikTok

  • Hole-in-the-wall spots – search your destination, “Japan,” “Tokyo hotels,” “Kyoto food,” etc, to find new spots to eat or cool experiences like finding a matcha farm tour
  • Souvenir tips – helps you start a list of things to buy as souvenirs, whether that’s Japanese skincare or specialty snacks to bring home. 

Best time of year to visit Japan

Hotel  Mitsui, garden and pond

The best times to visit Japan throughout the year is during the 

  • Spring (March to May) – to see the cherry blossoms
  • Fall (October to November) – to see the autumn leaves. There are sites that track the weather and leaves throughout the year, like the Japanese Meterological Corporation, so you know when to visit. Note that weather can be finicky, and this year, the foliage came over two weeks later than usual. 
  • Summer (June-August) – this is during the off-season so there are fewer tourists. Also great if you can only travel during the summer due to family schedules, but avoid it if you are heat-sensitive
  • Winter (December-February) – also the off-season and good timing if you like winter sports like skiing or snowboarding, but note that the weather can be harsh and cold.

Make sure to look up Japanese holidays while planning your trip because this can cause more local tourists or restaurants and shops to be closed down. For example, we visited Kyoto during Culture Day, on a 3-day weekend, and the streets were absolutely packed with restaurant reservations being incredibly difficult to get.

Decide on your trip length

Many people are restricted by the number of vacation days they have for a Japan trip. Ideally if you are visiting Japan for the first time, at least two weeks is recommended because there is an endless list of places to visit, things to do, and eat. If you’re visiting from the US, like us, plan for at least one full day of travel to Japan and one full day to fly home.

  • 5-7 days: For my first trip to Japan, I only had one week to explore one large city, Tokyo. I didn’t have enough time to venture out into other prefectures or towns.
  • 10-14 days: On my second trip, I allotted almost two weeks and split my time between Tokyo and Kyoto (much smaller than Tokyo). This was enough time to visit without running out of things to do. It allowed me to explore more casually. We planned one main activity to do daily in order not to burn out during our trip. 

I liked using the r/JapanTravelTips and r/JapanTravel subreddits, where you can submit your itinerary, and people can help you flesh out your plans fully. This also gives you more ideas on places to eat and visit. 

Deciding which cities to visit

Different cities provide different activities, cultures, food, and overall experiences. Here’s a quick guideline of the most popular cities in Japan. 

streets of Tokyo
  • Tokyo (at least 5 days): If it’s your first time visiting, I would try to spend the most time in Tokyo because it’s the largest metropolitan area. There are several cities throughout Tokyo that offer different experiences, like Shibuya is the center of young fashion and shopping; Ginza is for luxury goods and fine dining; Kappabashi is for kitchen and restaurant shopping; or Akihabara, which is the anime district. We ate non-stop in Tokyo, and there were so many more restaurants we didn’t get to visit!
Fushimi Inari Taisha gates
  • Kyoto (3-4 days): This city, which was once the capital, is very different from Tokyo. You’ll find several shrines and temples throughout Kyoto, as well as many tourists. While it’s a lot slower-paced in Kyoto, don’t let this vibe fool you because there are equally as many fun and interesting things to do in Kyoto than other cities. We spent only four days here but could’ve spent a couple more to explore the region. You can also take day trips to nearby areas. Kyoto is also near the Uji and Wazuka, the matcha capitals of the world. We traveled to d:Matcha in Wazuka to learn about growing and producing matcha–this was one of the coolest tours we’ve taken. Nara is another day-trip spot near Kyoto where people love to feed the bowing deer and watch traditional mochi pounding. 
  • Osaka (2-3 days): If you like a fast-paced lifestyle, you might want to check out Osaka–an hour train ride from Kyoto. Some popular spots in Osaka are the lively nightlife of Dotonburi and touristy Kuromon fish market. We missed Osaka on this trip and asked a bunch of locals if we made a mistake. Surprisingly many of them said it’s ok to miss since Osaka feels like a mini Tokyo and we were already spending a good amount of time in Tokyo!

Note, if you plan on moving between cities, I would recommend using a luggage transfer service so you don’t have to painfully move luggage in a train station. We used the luggage transfer service through our hotel. Make sure to ask how long the transport will take because it can typically take between 1-3 days, depending on where you’re traveling and the weather.

We moved luggage from Kyoto to Tokyo, which took one day of travel. When we checked into our hotel in Tokyo, our luggage was already in our hotel room. I believe the cost was under $20 per luggage, but it was well worth it. On our first hotel transfer we didn’t use it, and had to roll luggage into train stations, up and down escalators, and when we couldn’t find the elevators we had to carry them by hand up and down, which may be impossible depending on your luggage’s weight.

Reserve restaurants 6-12 months ahead

Eating was one of our top goals in Japan because we love Japanese food, especially sushi. We found it extremely difficult to book highly rated restaurants (above 4 points on Tabelog or Michelin-rated), and some restaurants had a 6 month lead time. Check out the best restaurants in Tokyo from our trip.

Luckily, almost every restaurant we saw lets you cancel or make changes to your reservation if plans change. These vary by restaurant, typically, you’ll need to notify at least 24 hours before your reservation time. Some restaurants charge a fee of around 10% of your meal cost to cancel or make changes within 1-7 days of the reservation.

Finding restaurants. We used TikTok and Tabelog to find the best restaurants to reserve. Tabelog is Japan’s Yelp, but more discerning. Remember, Japan has higher standards for reviews, so their 4 out of 5 stars is more like 4.5 by American standards. We also used Google reviews to find restaurants while we were in Japan.

Making reservations. Most restaurants in Japan require you to book on third-party sites and without a direct booking option:

restaurant booking services

Booking fees. Many of these websites add handling fees (¥300-5,000 or $2-33 USD), so be aware of this addition. You may also be asked to pay the full cost of the tasting menu ahead of time to reserve your seat. Many of these reservations have strict cancellation fees, so make sure to read up on each restaurant before reserving.  

A powerful hotel concierge will be helpful, especially for places that are call-in only. Some hotels have a list of restaurants they have good relationships with and can help you. Note that some hotels will not make same-day reservations because they want to keep a good rapport. After booking your hotel, you can contact the concierge via email and have them set up reservations ahead of time. You need to give them your credit card details, and they will book it through a phone call or website. 

Don’t want the headache of booking reservations or planning a trip at all? Consider doing a premium tour for access to restaurants that are more difficult for tourists to book. There are tour groups specific to eating in Japan, like IFoodStory or Hungry Tourist. Some of these tours still book at least 6 months in advance, so be sure to check the websites for availability. 

Public Transportation

Japanese travelers waiting for the subway

You’ll need a Metro pass to get around Japan. For traveling between cities farther apart, you must buy JR (Japan Railway) tickets for bullet trains (or shinkansen) from the station. JR trains are different from Metro tickets because they are owned by different companies. Some more remote destinations require using a taxi or taxi in addition to the railway.

Japan is known as one of the most complicated subway and Metro systems in the world. Even after using the New York City subway, Chicago’s Metro, and Washington D.C.’s Metro, Japan’s Metro is a whole new beast. However, there are some tips and tricks I can offer that make learning this public transportation easier on your brain when planning. 

Metro Pass

You will need a Metro card to use the public transportation system (trains, buses, and shuttles) in Japan, and a few of the most popular cards are Pasmo, Suica, and IC. In late 2023, there was a shortage of chips available, resulting in a halt in the sale of physical Metro cards. 

Here are Metro pass options for tourists: 

  • Physical cards: “tourist only” Welcome Suica or Welcome Pasmo card upon arrival at Haneda, Narita, or Osaka airports. To reload Welcome Metro cards, you must use the kiosks at the train stations and pay in cash.
Suica railpass in iPhone digital wallet
  • Digital cards: Use an iPhone (Android does not work) to add a digital IC/Pasmo/Suica card. We used this option. Reloading digital cards is easy, and you can do so on your phone.
one time use railway ticket
  • Individual tickets: buying individual train tickets with cash or coins at the station every time you want to use the train

Using passes at Metro stations

To use a digital card, just tap your phone on the right-hand side of the gate before entering the station. You will also need to tap out at your destination station when exiting–make sure it registers because we forgot to tap out once and exited, and the card declined entry at our next location. We had to fix this issue with a staff worker at the info desk at a station.

You can also use both digital and physical cards at various stores like konbini, and many fast-food restaurants to buy items.

To use a physical individual ticket, you insert it into the turnstile and then collect it after passing. Then, at your destination station, you again insert it into a turnstile, and the machine keeps it.

Taking the Metro is significantly cheaper than using taxis or Uber (which is essentially the same thing in Japan). Where a Metro ride would cost $1, the taxi ride would be around $10-$20 for the same distance. However, you will need to walk to and from the train station, so you will be walking a lot more. 

Google Maps was a lifesaver. Use Google Maps to help navigate the train stations and times. It tells you everything: the train and station names, the platform to board (including which car is the fastest to board with fewer people), what time to board (and sequential next trains), how many stops it will take, and the exit direction to leave the station.

JR Rail Pass

paper JR Rail Pass

If you’ll be going to various cities across Japan throughout your trip, you might want to purchase a JR Pass. It’s made specifically for tourists, and you can use them for seats on bullet trains (or shinkansen) and JR trains. We purchased our JR Pass through Klook and were sent physical papers in the mail. We activated them on the day we arrived at Narita airport. There are also regional passes that cover part of Japan depending on the pass. JR trains also run throughout Tokyo central, and you will know it’s a JR train because there will be a J before the train line.  

In October 2023, the price of an individual JR Pass rose from ¥ 29,650 to 50,000 (from $200 to $337 USD). Many people now choose to buy individual shinkansen tickets because they are more cost-effective. To determine if you need to buy a rail pass, use JR calculators online, like Japan Guide calculator. These calculators will figure out how much money each train will cost, and you can compare these prices to the price of the JR Pass. From our experience, if you are only going from Tokyo to Kyoto or Osaka, the JR Pass will not be worth the price. JR Pass also includes rides to and from both major airports on Tokyo Monorail for Haneda Airport and Narita Express for Narita Airport. 

There are also two class levels on the Shinkansen: economy and first class (green car). The green car requires reservations ahead of time, even with the JR Pass, and you can also reserve oversized luggage. Green car seats are also larger and recline further for a comfier trip. Also note that the faster Shinkansen trains (Nozumi and Mizuho) are not included in the JR Pass. 

Book flights early–for lay flats, lower prices

Figure out what kind of flights you want for this trip, which could be based on your budget and comfort level. We’ve tried several types of seats, from Economy to full lay-flat seats. Also, determine where you would like to fly based on your first city. If you are flying into Tokyo, there is Haneda Airport (HND), which is 20-30 minutes from Tokyo Station, and Narita Airport (NRT), which is almost 2 hours from Tokyo Station. If you’re flying into Osaka, there is Kansai Airport (KIX). 

Try to book flights early to get good seats or prices. I used Google Flights to track prices and also frequently learned when airlines would release flights for the future. For example, ZipAir sometimes releases seats 11 months in advance. 

Full-Flat Seats

ZipAir's full-flat seats

If you want full-flat seats for a more affordable price, I would recommend ZipAir full-flat seats, which is owned by Japan Airlines. There are only 18 seats per flight, which is perfectly roomy and comfortable. Just be warned that ZipAir only has one class level. That means everyone boards simultaneously, and there is no priority line for check-in. 

ZipAir is also a budget airline, so that means your flight will be barebones. When purchasing your ticket, you can order value sets to add-on items like a meal, an amenity kit (blanket, pillow, socks), and check-in baggage. Some of these items may be available for purchase on the plane trip but may run out. On board, there is free Wi-Fi, and you can buy snacks too. We opted to bring our own travel pillows, blankets, and snacks, as well as order a meal for the flight. This was more than comfortable for us for the 10-hour plane ride. A one-way full flat seat from LAX to NRT (Narita) costs us $1,400; however, if you book early enough at the right time of the year, you can find full flat seats as low as $900 one way. Note that if you choose to ride ZipAir to Japan, it will only fly into Narita airport, which means it will take longer to get into Tokyo central. 

Premium Economy

For our return flight, we booked a premium economy seat on American Airlines from HND (Haneda) to LAX for $$$$. With this upgrade, we could check in at the priority line and receive our bags first when we landed (a treat if you’ve ever landed at LAX). The seats were spacious and reclined more than basic economy. Since we prebooked our meals, we received just what we wanted since some dishes were sold out. We also were served our meals first. With an eight-hour flight, I could comfortably sleep on the plane even though it wasn’t full flat. 

Economy

It’s been a long time since I flew to Japan for the first time, which was an economy seat. From our Premium Economy seats this time, we were seated just one row in front of Economy, though, so we were really able to see what it was like there.

The seat sizes were smaller, similar to the size of our domestic flight seats in the US. Instead of only 2-3 people per row, they were more crowded, 4-5 people per row, meaning you may have to step over many people if heading to the bathroom. Food and beverage service comes to the economy section after all the other seats are served. Strangely, we noticed that the food packaging and plates were plastic in economy (compared to our ceramic) with plastic utensils (instead of metal).

Apps & trip-planning tools

apps for planning our Japan trip

Here are my top used apps that helped plan our Japan trip and made traveling throughout Japan so easy. Many of these have both web-based versions as well as an app: 

  • Wanderlog: to help plan your itinerary and use it during the trip 
  • Google Maps: to get Metro directions and find restaurants with ratings 
  • JapanTravel: official Metro and shinkansen route guide
  • Google Translate: to help translate signs, menus, and communicate with locals
  • Google app: also helps you translate photos with Google Lens
  • Klook: to purchase activities and tickets like JR Pass and Disney Tokyo tickets  
  • Disney Resort Tokyo: necessary for Disney visits because they only scan digital tickets. 
  • Uber: helps you order taxis during your trip. Make sure you’re signed up and logged in ahead of time since the SMS verification can be a pain.

Cellular service

Airalo and Ubigi websites

Figure this out ahead of time, because even in the comfort of our own home, the service we use had a few speedbumps to setup. You don’t want to be figuring this out after landing, or comparing pricing, etc. on a time crunch.

To get Internet access in Japan, use an eSIM. There are different brands to use, like Airalo and Ubigi. With an eSIM, you don’t need to carry around a pocket wifi device the entire trip or pick it up at the airport. 

We downloaded the Ubigi app the day before traveling and purchased a 10 GB plan for our entire 10-day trip. One con of using Ubigi is the complicated set-up process, and it is not a process I’d like to repeat. However, I did like activating it once we landed with just a quick toggle on our phone settings, and we were ready to use data. If you do run out of data, you can easily purchase another plan on the app and use the data immediately if necessary.  

Note that we didn’t choose the plan that included calling minutes, only data.

What to pack

Make sure you pack these useful things in your luggage to make traveling in Japan easier: 

  • Handkerchief to wipe your hands or sweat
  • Light rain jacket for the Fall
  • Sanitizer 
  • Airtag to help keep track of your luggage
  • Hydro bandaids for potential blisters
  • Small coin purse
  • Mini Theragun for your tired legs
  • Headphones for the train and shinkansen

Power outlets in Japan

outlets in a Japanese hotel

When packing hair appliances or chargers, make sure they fit the power outlets in Japan. The power outlets in Japan are 100V and a Type-A plug (two-prong). Any appliance from North American with the same two-prong, Type-A plug 100-120 V will work in Japan. Often times the hotel outlets would have outlets that already had plug adapters built in to accommodate many other plug types.

Additionally, voltage conversion was never an issue with our North American electronics. We easily used hair styling tools, like the Dyson Airwrap, phone chargers, camera chargers, laptop chargers, and Apple chargers easily, and I never needed to use an adapter in any hotel. 

How much cash to bring

Japanese paper money

Some people say that Japan is more cash-based, but I would counter that–we spent about 80% on credit cards and 20% cash in all of our transactions for 10 days. We probably could have spent under 5% in cash for the trip, but we wanted to just spend what we brought instead of having to convert it later.

To make traveling easier, we exchanged yen at our local bank before we left. We brought ¥ 74,000 (or $500) for two people, but we didn’t need more than $150. All fine-dining places accepted credit, and we charged the majority of prix fixe payments online when we booked the reservation. Based on our experience, a very select few shops took cash-only. To see how much a Japan trip cost, see our breakdown in our detailed post.

Credit cards

three credit cards without foreign transaction fees

Definitely bring a credit card for purchases in Japan. Make sure your cards don’t have foreign transaction fees. The main ones we used that do not have foreign fees were:

  • Chase Sapphire Preferred
  • US Bank Altitude Go
  • American Express Platinum

We were also warned that there might be problems with foreign Visa credit cards, and we did run into this a few times using the Chase Sapphire, and we had to switch to charging the Amex. 

Final tips

Here are some last-minute travel tips for Japan: 

  • Learn a few phrases in Japanese, like “arigatō gozaimasu” (thank you very much), “sumimasen” (excuse me), and “konnichiwa” (hello)
  • Figure out what souvenirs you may want, this makes it easier to pick things up on the go because you may not return to that store or place again
  • Fill out the forms on Visit Japan Web to make immigration easier when you land. You will get QR codes to scan at the entrance and get through the lines faster. However, don’t add two-factor authentication if you cannot receive SMS text messages in another country because you may get locked out–this happened to us. Once you pass through immigration, submit another form on the website to get the QR code for tax-free purchases. This helped a lot when we didn’t carry around our passports during shopping. 

Like this recipe? Subscribe to my newsletter!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *