Japan: the Ultimate Travel Guide
So you’re going to Japan. Cool… take us with you?
At STA Travel, our motto is ‘we know because we go’. Or in my case, we lived there. I’m Jo, and I lived in Japan for just over one year working as an English teacher in a small, mountaintop middle school in Hyogo prefecture. My students and fellow teachers not only taught me how to survive, but also where the best little-known adventure spots were hidden. Now it’s my pleasure to pass on the wisdom so you can be the savviest gaikokujin (foreigner) walking out of the airport.
Besides unwaveringly excellent food, epic history, and colorful traditions, the whole country is practically one giant UNESCO World Heritage Site. As much as we’d love to show you the ropes ourselves, this ultimate travel guide will probably say it better than we can—it’s hard to talk while shoveling tempura into our faces.
We’d usually give you five here, but we’ve split it out into 25. That’s five for each of the five major tourist spots you can’t miss.
Tokyo top 5
From forest-enclosed shrines to blaring neon streets, Tokyo has everything. EVERYTHING. Like…
- Akihabara – If you’re a total otaku (nerd), the Akihabara district is the biggest anime hub in the world and sells every piece of merch you can dream of. Prepare to be converted into a full-on foodie as restaurants and cafes are elaborately themed into whatever you can, or can’t, imagine.
- The Mori Art Gallery – Still not funky enough? The Mori Art Gallery has enormous, interactive exhibits and, with a ticket, you get to squeak into one of the city’s best viewpoints and score a selfie with the top of Tokyo tower.
- Harajuku – The epicentre of teen culture, Takeshita street is an explosion of colorful wigs, J-pop merch and syrupy crepes. Walk 15 minutes into the woods across the street and find the Meiji Jingu Shrine. If the Harajuku Girl look isn’t quite you, go shopping on nearby Cat Street for sleek, luxury brands and killer vintage finds.
- Shibuya – After joining thousands in crossing the world’s most famous (and busiest) intersection, watch the chaos from above in the Starbucks above Tsutaya or head to one of the thousands of nearby bars or izakayas (snack bars) for a night out. If you love dogs, don’t forget pass the Hachiko Memorial Statue and give that pupper a good pat.
- Ueno Park – As a traveler, the museums in Ueno Park have the finest artifacts and art works to aid in your understanding of the history of Japan. If you’re more into the pop culture side of things, this landmark is heavily featured in books and movies as a place where love and heartbreak happens. Come spring, the rows of cherry blossom trees are good for the ‘gram.
Also don’t miss: Senso-ji temple, wandering down the endless yokochos (narrow alleys) around the city and Tsukiji Fish Market, for all the noms.
Mount Fuji top 5
Don your goggles and facemask, and venture up Japan’s iconic summit… or just chill at the bottom of it, gazing in awe.
- Climbing up – It’s best to kick off your pilgrimage in the early afternoon, bundle up in a hut overnight, and see why Japan is called The Land of the Rising Sun the next morning. Sure, Fuji sounds daunting, but getting up is the easy part—getting down after your adventure and an intoxicating sunrise is where the challenge lies.
- Lake Kawaguchi – If the two-day journey doesn’t quite peak your interest, view it from one of five lakes surrounding the mountain. Lake Kawaguchi is the most accessible and popular, flaunting onsens, hotels, and the temple-framed views of Fuji pictured above.
- Lake Motosuko – If you have an appetite for something a little more remote though, Lake Motosuko’s vistas are clear of buildings save a couple of stand-up paddle board rental shops and campsites. Assuming you’re driving from east to west, the drive past the four other lakes is an additional treat as well, and a strong contender for our favourite of the five lakes.
- Water sports and rollercoasters – If you like lining up for ages to see great heights, hop on to one of the rollercoasters at Fuji-Q. This popular theme park is home to the Takabisha, which has the steepest drop in the world at 121°. It’s just like climbing Fuji again, but much, much faster on the trip down.
- Exploring caves – If rock compositions excite you like this geography nerd, you’re in for an education about volcanic magma, limestone caves, and how three of the Fuji five lakes are actually connected by underwater tunnels. Give Bat Cave, Ice Caves and Wind Cave a go.
Kyoto top 5
Nearly every Instagram you’ve seen of Japan was probably taken here. Does bamboo forests and rows of bright orange torii gates ring a bell?
- Gion – Consider Kyoto the cultural capital, sprawling with kimono-clad visitors scuttling past in the historic alleys of Gion. Your only indication that you weren’t transported to the Edo period will be the dozens of other camera-wielding travelers, all hoping for a glimpse of a real-life geisha.
- Fushimi Inari Shrine – You can pose with your back to the camera as you walk through the hundreds of torii gates near the bottom of the mountain, but a complete pilgrimage means slowly winding all the way up the mountain to the final shrine and a wide vista over the whole city. You can even see Osaka from up there on a clear day.
- Arashiyama – This corner of Kyoto is home to the famous bamboo grove, a monkey park, and pretty incredible gardens. The best teahouses are found at the temples here, though be sure to ask for a chair if sitting on your knees is a challenge.
- Golden Temple – There are literally hundreds upon hundreds of temples. If you stop to visit every single one you pass, you seriously won’t get very far! Even if it means tying horse blinders to your face, you need to make it to Kinkaku-ji, aka the Golden Temple, at the northern end of Kyoto. It’s the birthplace of so much art and cultural history, and it sparkles brilliantly in the sun.
- Ryoan-ji’s rock garden – The Ryoan-ji temple neighbors the Golden Temple, but is much more niche. The dry landscape garden here is thought to been built in the late 15th century and no one knows its original creator. Fifteen rocks sit in a position that makes it impossible to view them all from any perspective. Contemplate the implied existential meaning of your existence as you sit quietly on the viewing platform.
Osaka top 5
There’s no better medicine for getting a little templed out in Kyoto than diving head-first into the neon sprawl of Osaka.
- America Mura – This village is a divine mix of chic and bizarre. A rooftop Statue of Liberty will watch over you as you wander from sleek cocktail bars to funky restaurants. The most wholesome delight is hearing people sing their hearts out to karaoke at 7am as you walk back to your hotel after a long night out.
- Dotonburi – Speaking of a night out, one is incomplete without posing with the Glico man in Dōtonburi—just don’t get too excited and fall into the river. Feel free to pose with the massive dragon, crab, and fish robots that sit above shop doors. To burn off some extra energy, check out Round1/Spocha in the Namba area. This 24-hour sports centre has hundreds of arcade and sports games including a mechanical bull, a roller rink, and those inflatable bubble things you can play human football in.
- Spa World – Foreigners who live Japan share whispers among themselves of this fantasy waterpark for adults. It’s a hotel with its most attractive features being multiple onsens, waterslides, stone spa and restaurants. You don’t have to stay overnight to bask in Spa World’s relaxing waters. Did we mention it’s open 24-hours?
- Baseball Game – Here, the locals are known for being a bit more boisterous than their Tokyo counterparts. The best way to witness this is at a Hanshin Tigers baseball game. The team is doing better these days, but there was once believed to be a curse on the team due to a lost statue of the KFC mascot, Colonel Sanders, that was throw into a river. It’s pretty hilarious and you won’t regret looking it up.
- Stay in a Love Hotel — Japanese people usually live with their family until marriage. So love hotels make big business on couples who are still in the dating stage of things. Even though they charge by the hour, they are still often cheaper than an ordinary hotel. They’re SUPER clean, give you free condoms, have karaoke and video games, and are a general great place to catch an afternoon nap when it’s a long walk back to your hostel.
This is a place of peace and mournful tranquility. It’s well worth paying your respects and educating yourself about Japan’s devastating war history.
- Peace Memorial Park – This curved monument is engraved with all the names of the known victims of the 1945 atomic bomb. Burning in the pond is the Flame of Peace, which will only be extinguished once all of the nuclear weapons on earth have been destroyed.
- Atomic Bomb Dome – This building used to be the Industrial Promotion Hall until the bomb exploded directly above it. It was one of very few buildings left standing in the epicentre, and serves as a reminder of the damage that was caused.
- Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum – Learn about Hiroshima’s ongoing legacy for peace in this expansive museum. Inside features items found in the aftermath of the bomb, first-person accounts shown on video and a range of photographs. It’s upsetting, but an absolute must-see in Hiroshima. All sites are translated into English and other languages for maximum accessibility.
- Shukkei-en – This garden was created in 1620, and the buildings were largely destroyed when the bomb fell. However, many trees survived and bloomed the next season. The rest of the garden has long since been restored and is calming to stroll through.
- Orizuru Tower – This is boasted as the best viewpoint in Hiroshima. It oversees the Peace Memorial Park, the Atomic Bomb Dome as well as the rest of the city and the mountains beyond. It’s a great place to take a break and contemplate everything you’ve learned about Hiroshima.
Getting around Japan
The JR pass is perhaps the second most important thing you’ll want to bring when going to Japan (your passport obviously being the first). There are some exceptions when it comes to unlimited rail travel, but unless you’re headed to very niche areas of Japan, you should be able to get to every adventure on your list. You can choose to live life on the tracks with one-, two-, or three-week pass options at prices that would drive locals to jealousy:
7 days — ¥29,110/ $279
14 days — ¥46,390/ $444
21 days — ¥59,350/ $568
You’ll need to buy your pass online BEFORE arriving in Japan. When you purchase your pass online, you may to arrange your exchange order to be delivered to either your home or your hotel in Japan. An exchange order is not your JR pass though! You must then go to any JR Exchange Office in Japan with your exchange order to finally possess your coveted pass.
Guard you JR pass with your life — it’s irreplaceable, so you’re out of luck if you lose it. To arrange your actual train journeys, visit the JR offices at each major station as you go along your trip. You should generally be fine to simply show up to the station on the day you want to travel, but you should probably book at least a few days ahead if you’re traveling during hanami (cherry blossom season) or Golden Week. Seriously, Japanese people book their travel about six months in advance for these times.
An IC card (also known as the Suica card inside Tokyo) is going to be your best friend when gallivanting within the cities. You simply tap on and off the metro and busses like you would an Oyster card in London. Each region has its own adorable IC card name and mascot. Can you catch them all?
Move over CityMapper, and hello HyperDia. This goddess of an app comes in English and has the latest train times, prices, connections, and platform numbers of each journey. You’ll never be late or get lost if you pledge your undying love for HyperDia. Seriously though, Google Maps is drunk in Japan. Don’t trust it.
Accommodation in Japan and how to book
Hotels and hostels can be perused and booked online as you would in any other country – start searching now. Whether you’re up for flopping on a futon or crave the comforts of home with a western-style bed, you’ll find a huge variety of rooms that will match your style and budget. Such as…
Capsule hotels – These efficient little pods are made for you to rock up and flop inside, and are a classic ‘Japan’ experience for a lot of travelers. Often the most budget friendly, they offer shared showering facilities and individual phone chargers, radios and mini TVs in each capsule. Every place you’ll stay is almost guaranteed to be extremely clean, even if it’s not rated 10/10.
Ryokan are traditional Japanese inns that are usually run by families. Lounge in a yukata robe and, soak each evening in a traditional onsen (hot tub), and be sure to opt for a traditional evening meal or breakfast cooked by the ryokan’s chef. After your knees are sore from kneeling on the tatami floor, slip under the warm sheets of a futon. These indie spots used to be tricky to find if you didn’t speak Japanese, but fear not! We’ve got you covered with our booking page right here.
Love hotels, most commonly found in the Roppongi and Shinjuku areas of Tokyo, are… well, exactly what they say on the tin, so you might want to approach with care. Japanese couples can pay by the hour to use their facilities, making for their seedy reputation. But if you do your research, you can find thoroughly clean and amazing-value rooms, filled with everything from revolving beds, to karaoke machines and futuristic-themed hot tubs. F-U-N.
We hate to break it to you, but Airbnb is unfortunately not your friend in Japan. Due to new regulations being enforced in the last few years, the number of Airbnbs listings have dramatically dropped. Some can still be booked, but your host will likely give you instructions to not tell their neighbors you are guests from the site. It’s okay though—our lips are sealed.
How much should I budget?
Depending on how much yen you have in your coin purse, your typical night in Japan will probably look like one of these.
On the cheap: Start the night by bagging a selection of ready-to-eat yakitori, croquettes, or sushi from a convenience store such as Lawson, FamilyMart or 7-Eleven (¥600/$5.50). While at said store, stock up on the miracle elixir known as Strong Zero (¥160/$1.25!) — careful though… don’t take that 9% alcohol lightly. Finish up the evening in a hostel (¥3,000/$26) that looks just like a European hostel, only it’s ridiculously tidy.
Like a local: Pop into the local izakaya (a Japanese pub) and order a pint of Asahi beer (¥300/$2.50) and munch on an insane variety of vegetables and fried meats also known as kushi katsu. (¥1,500/ £11). You can opt for an ordinary hotel, (¥5,000/$46) or you can discover first-hand that love hotels are surprisingly cheaper and much more entertaining (¥3,500/$30).
Luxury: Indulge on the finer things in life and incite wild envy in your Instagram followers. Take more time photographing your multi-course artisanal dinner than actually eating it (¥4,000/$37), and ask the server what sake pairs best (¥900/$8). Prance off to your ryokan to retire, and make sure you pick one with an onsen (¥8,000/$75).
Top 10 Japanese phrases you need to learn
Do you speak English?: Eigo ga wakarimasu ka?
Sorry, I don’t understand: Gomenasai! Wakarimasen.
Good morning — Good day: Ohayo Gozaimasu — Konnichi wa.
Excuse me/Sorry: Sumimasen.
Where is the washroom?: Toire wa doko desu ka?
I would like that one please: Kore wa kudasai.
(Be sure to point to something when you say this!)
Is this/are you okay?: Daijoubu desu ka?
It’s okay (useful when declining things/No thank you): Daijoubu desu.
Is there a bin I can use?: Gomi ga arimasu ka?
Thank you!: Arigato gozaimasu.
You’ll never have a bad meal in Japan. People here never half-ass anything, and it shows in their painstakingly perfected food creations.
In big cities, you’ll be able to find an array of international cuisine that has affectionately been transformed with a Japanese twist (for example, pizza with corn as a topping). Western-style vegetarian and vegan eateries can also be found if you know where to go. Outside of big cities, you’ll find six Japanese staples reign supreme: Sushi, Japanese Italian, Japanese curry, okonomiyaki, yakitori (grilled chicken), and ramen.
Be sure to also check out a convenience store and suss out the seasonal flavors of KitKats and other sweets. While your friends and fam are pretty much expecting you to bring them back a handful of matcha-flavored Kit Kats, also try out the crème brulee, chocobanana, blueberry cheese cake and… baked potato(??!) flavored ones.