Planning a trip to Japan can be overwhelming: There’s too much information and not enough time to sort it out. However, if you break it down into 10 steps, you’ll find that it’s pretty easy. Here’s our step-by-step guide to planning a trip to Japan.
Planning a Japan trip
First, Here Are The 10 Steps
- Decide when to go
- Decide how long to stay
- Decide where to go
- Buy plane tickets
- Reserve hotels and ryokan
- Decide on Japan Rail Pass (JRP)
- Get the right kind of luggage
- Get a SIM, eSIM or pocket wifi
- Get a digital Suica (if you have an iPhone) or a physical IC card
- Book tours and activities
Here are the details and links to pages with more information.
If you find Japan travel planning overwhelming, consider booking a personal Japan travel consultation with our Japan Travel Consultancy.
Kyoto’s Okazaki-koen Area with illuminated cherry blossoms © Jeffrey Friedl
1) Decide when to go
- Spring (March to May) and fall (mid-September to early December) are best.
- Cherry blossom season (end of March and early April) is great but crowded and expensive.
- Fall foliage season (mid-October to the end of November) is also great but crowded and expensive.
- Winter (December to the end of February) is not too cold and it’s cheap and uncrowded.
- May and June are warm and not too crowded or expensive.
- July and August are too hot and humid for most people, but you can get great deals.
2) Decide how long to stay
- Your work and holiday schedule might make up your mind for you.
- If you have a choice, 10 to 14 days is ideal for most first-timers.
For more information, see How Long Should You Stay in Japan?
3) Decide where to go
- For your first visit, you should visit Tokyo, Kyoto and 1 or 2 other places.
- Other places might include an onsen/ryokan in the country, Naoshima (the “art island”), Kanazawa, Takayama or Hiroshima/Miyajima.
- You might also do a few days on one of the big treks: Kumano Kodo or Nakasendo.
- If you want to get off the beaten track, consider Kyushu, Shikoku or northern Honshu.
For more information, see Japan Itineraries.
4) Buy plane tickets
- Once you decide when to go and how long to stay, it’s time to buy plane tickets.
- For most people, flying into Tokyo makes sense.
- Tokyo has two airports: Narita and Haneda.
- If you have a choice, fly into Haneda, but both airports are perfectly fine.
Seikoro Ryokan in Kyoto
5) Reserve hotels and ryokan
- All major Japanese cities have plenty of hotels to choose from.
- You might also try a ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) for a night or two.
- Kyoto is a good place to try a ryokan.
- You’ll find the best rates and largest selection of hotels and ryokan on Booking.com.
- For Tokyo and Kyoto, it’s really important to decide where in the city to stay.
- See Where to Stay in Tokyo and Where to Stay in Kyoto for more details.
Japan Rail Pass: antb / Shutterstock.com
6) Decide on a Japan Rail Pass (JRP)
- The JRP has increased in price.
- It’s not a good deal for most travelers.
- It only makes sense for budget travelers who plan to do a lot of train travel.
For more information, see Should You Buy a Japan Rail Pass?
Bag combo – image © Chris Rowthorn
7) Get the right kind of luggage
- You will do most of your long-distance travel on Japan’s shinkansen (bullet trains).
- Shinkansen don’t have much luggage space.
- Japan has fast, cheap and reliable overnight luggage shipping services.
- To take advantage of Japan’s unique transport and shipping systems, you need specific luggage.
- A light shoulder bag for necessities and a wheelie bag for the rest is the way to go.
For more information, see The Best Luggage for Japan.
8) Get a SIM, eSIM or Pocket Wifi
- You will probably want mobile data while in Japan.
- If you have a new-ish unlocked phone, then an eSIM is the way to go.
- If your phone is locked to a specific carrier, your only choice is a pocket wifi.
- If you have an unlocked older phone, a physical SIM is the way to go.
- See the link below for the best eSIMs, SIM cards and pocket wifi.
This is the Welcome Suica card
9) Get a digital Suica (if you have an iPhone) or a physical IC card
- An IC (integrated circuit) card is the best way to pay for almost everything in Japan.
- You can pay at many restaurants and shops with an IC card. You can also pay for all local transport, taxis, vending machines and coin lockers with an IC card.
- An IC card saves you from having to handle cash.
- If you have an iPhone with a MasterCard or Amex card linked to your Apple Wallet, you can get a digital IC card (Suica or Pasmp card) on your phone.
- If you can’t get a digital IC card, you can buy a Welcome Suica or Pasmo Passport card when you arrive in Tokyo.
Kyoto Walks offered by Chris Rowthorn Tours
10) Book tours and activities
- Once you’ve got all the above taken care of, it’s time to book some tours and activities.
- I offer walking tours of Tokyo, Kyoto and Nara, among other places.
- Other things you might book include Sumo Stable Tours, cooking lessons, tea ceremonies and amusement park tickets.
More Japan Planning Resources
Kyoto Vacation Checklist
- For all the essentials in a brief overview, see my First Time In Kyoto guide
- Check Kyoto accommodation availability on Booking.com – usually you can reserve a room with no upfront payment. Pay when you check out. Free cancellations too
- Need tips on where to stay? See my one page guide Where To Stay In Kyoto
- See my comprehensive Packing List For Japan
- Buy a data-only SIM card online for collection when you arrive at Kansai International Airport (for Osaka and Kyoto) or Tokyo's Narita Airport. Or rent an unlimited data pocket wifi router
- Compare Japan flight prices and timings to find the best deals
- If you're visiting more than one city, you might save money with Japan Rail Pass – see if it's worth it for you
- A prepaid Suica card makes travelling around Kyoto easy – here's how
- World Nomads offers simple and flexible travel insurance. Buy at home or while traveling and claim online from anywhere in the world