Destination Spotlight: Japan
Japan is one of my very favorite countries in the world. (Which, if you know me, is a pretty bold statement!) I am a little biased having lived here for three years, but Japan definitely offers something for everyone, and the energy of its cities, stunning temples and natural beauty, and amazing food scene simply can’t be matched.
Read on for more if you’re considering a trip to Japan.
While it’s undeniably a long flight to Japan from the US, the journey to get here is usually pretty straightforward. There are direct flights into Tokyo from many major US cities, including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City, and Washington DC. Tokyo has two airports, Narita and Haneda, and either one will allow you to easily access the city.
Japan’s rail system is one of the best developed on the planet. Trains here will get you to even the smallest of towns, and always very comfortably and at record speeds. If you’re planning to visit multiple destinations around the country, consider getting a Japan Rail Pass that will cover your journeys on most train, bus, and ferry routes. Passes are available for 7, 14, or 21 days.
What to See
Where to even begin?! Japan has so much to see and do, and there are so many unique experiences to be had that it’s simply impossible to fit everything into one trip!
Japan’s frenzied capital of Tokyo will be the starting point for any itinerary here - although you could really spend your whole trip here alone. Tokyo is a huge, energetic, and incredibly modern city. You’ll want to spend at least a few days soaking up everything that’s wonderful (and sometimes a little quirky) about Tokyo - join in the massive crowds at Shibuya crossing, peruse underground food halls, wander the electronics of Akihabara, attend a sumo match, dine like a ninja, witness a robot show, ride a Mario Kart around the city, and nearly anything else that you can imagine.
Tokyo’s food scene is top notch. In fact, it was ranked the #1 food city in the world by Food and Wine Magazine. You should make time to explore the cozy ramen restaurants and unique sushi-go-rounds (known as kaitenzushi), grab a to-go lunch from any Lawson or Family Mart convenience store (no really, it’s delicious!), see fish throwing at Tsukiji public market, visit sake and shochu breweries...the gastro list goes on. For lovers of fine dining, you’ll find more Michelin stars here than anywhere in the world.
Great day trips from Tokyo include Disneyland and Disneysea, Universal Studios, the city of Yokohama and the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum (where you can try mini bowls of tons of varieties of ramen!), the beautiful beachside town of Kamakura, known for its dozens of Buddhist Zen temples and Shinto Shrines, and the quaint hidden gem of Nikko, a peaceful respite from city life with waterfalls and lush forests, hidden temples and shrines, and Lake Chuzenji at its center.
Just outside of Tokyo you’ll find Hakone, a beautiful mountainous town that’s home to Lake Ashinoko and Mount Fuji. If you visit this area in the summer, you’ll have the chance to hike up Mount Fuji. For the less adventurous, you can also cruise around the lake and enjoy mountain views or spend the day soaking in one of the town’s many onsens (hot springs). This is also a great destination to stay in a ryokan, a unique and traditional Japanese inn with tatami mats, typically built around the hot springs themselves.
Quaint Kyoto is also a must on any Japan itinerary. Kyoto is home to over 1600 (!) temples and is a great place to learn more about the country’s more traditional side, view a tea ceremony, see a geisha performance, and enjoy fine kaiseki dining. From here, it’s easy to take a side trip to smaller towns like Nara, Japan’s first capital, home to a rich collection of traditional sites and a local deer population that’s happy to receive snacks from visitors to the town.
These places are really just the tip of the iceberg in Japan. City lovers will also love the chance to explore Osaka, Japan’s second largest city. Beach lovers can flock south to Okinawa and the Ryukyu Islands, a chain of tropical islands known for diving and snorkeling and a laid back vibe. And snowbirds can head north to Hokkaido for skiing, snowboarding, and winter snow festivals.
When to Come
Japan can be truly wonderful to visit any time of the year depending where your interests lie. Come in the spring if you’d like the chance to see the famous cherry blossoms. Summer is when you can have the chance to hike up Mount Fuji. Fall is popular for cooler weather and to snap photos of the foliage framing the temples. And winter presents the opportunity for snow activities in Hokkaido.
If one of these seasonal activities is on your list, it’s important to book your trip early to secure availability.
Language translation apps can be handy to have in a pinch. I recommend the apps ‘Japanese’ and Google Translate. Google Translate allows you to take a picture of things like signs and menus and instantly translate them.
Japan’s currency is the yen, and while standard credit cards are widely accepted, cash is still used for many smaller purchases and at some small restaurants. ATMs are available in convenience stores, and you’ll find a currency exchange center at the airport when you arrive.
IC cards are prepaid, rechargeable cards that can be used to pay for public transportation but also for things like convenience stores, vending machines, and even game arcades. It’s a convenient way to pay without having to worry about digging cash out of your bag every time you have a small transaction to make. Each city has its own card, and in Tokyo it’s known as the Suica card. You can get one at any major train or metro station.
Take the time to learn a little bit about the culture of Japan, and you’ll have an amazing trip. Bowing is a common way to greet one another, and eating and smoking in the streets are considered no-nos. Expect to take off your shoes when you enter temples, someone’s home, and some guesthouses and traditional restaurants. Do not tip while in Japan. Tipping is considered rude, no matter how delicious the food was or how great the experience was.
Ready to Go?
Get ready to have an incredible time in one of the world’s coolest and most beautiful countries! As a certified Japan Master Travel Specialist and having lived in the country for three years, I’m here to answer your questions and create a fully customized itinerary for you for your next adventure. Start planning your trip here.
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