Though I usually prefer to go with the flow when I travel – exploring a new place without a rigid plan – traveling to Japan without planning ahead can be costly at best and significantly impact your enjoyment at worse. If you’re traveling almost an entire day to get there and you have limited time to spend, the least you can do is set yourself up for success. To that end, these are some essential tips that you’ll need when you’re planning Japan travel.
1. Decide if you need a JR Pass.
When people talk about visiting Japan, the first thing they recommend is the JR Pass, which gives you unlimited train travel around the country. But there are some major caveats to that might make it not worth it for everyone. For one, the JR Pass is only good on JR lines and does not cover city metros and other local transportation that are not JR. This means that you’ll still pay for other private train lines to different cities and within cities.
The JR Pass also does not include certain bullet trains (the most popular routes), like Tokyo to Kyoto. While there are alternative routes, these are less frequent and have more stops. Arguably one of the most exciting things about visiting Japan is having frequent access to incredibly fast transportation around the country. Why would you want to limit yourself to slower/more inconvenient lines with the JR Pass?
But perhaps the most important consideration is how long you’re going to visit and how much you plan to travel on JR trains. For example, if you plan to go from Tokyo to Kyoto to Osaka and back to Tokyo over the span of two weeks, you’d be better off buying single train tickets without any restrictions. That’s because a 14-day JR Pass costs $377, but the sum of those individual trains is just $222.
If you’re unsure whether it’ll be worthwhile, you can use the fare calculator to estimate your cost savings.
2. Get a JR Pass in advance.
The JR Pass is currently available until March 31, 2024 at some offices in Japan, but for a long time, you could only buy the JR Pass from outside of Japan before you arrived. This makes sense since the pass is designed to provide value to temporary visitors, not residents. You need a non-Japanese passport to be able to buy it. When you pre-order a JR Pass, you’ll get sent a voucher that you’ll need to exchange when you arrive for the actual pass that you can use to travel. Note: since this is so popular, the lines to exchange the voucher at the airport can get pretty long.
If you wait to buy the JR Pass locally, you’ll pay an extra 10% handling charge for the same pass. It can be purchased at the same JR offices where voucher exchange is possible. So if you know you’ll need it, save the money and get it online before you travel.
3. Get a mobile Suica card.
Perhaps even more important than city-to-city travel planning in Japan is planning for getting around within cities. Japan has an extensive network of trains, metros, and buses, and the Suica pre-paid card will get you access to every single one of them all over Japan. It can even be used to pay for taxis. The Suica card saves you both the time and hassle buying tickets every time you ride, fumbling for coins and scrambling to get to the platform before the train departs. All you have to do is hold up the card to the reader on the turnstile and you’re set. Better yet, the Suica can even be used for vending machines, purchases on board, to rent coin lockets, and at some shops and restaurants.
You can even streamline your Suica use by adding it to your mobile wallet. This way, you don’t have to pay the deposit for the actual card, and you can monitor or top up your balance at any time, even if you’re not at a train station.
4. Book good hotel rooms in advance.
Japan was closed to visitors for a few years, so the rush of tourism is significant. Though there are certain mediocre stays that will always be fairly affordable, if you want the best choice of hotels for the cheapest price, you should book several months in advance. Not only will a lot of great accommodations get booked up, the ones that don’t will be significantly more expensive. For instance, a Japanese-style hotel with a Mt. Fuji view in the resort town of Fujikawaguchiko costs around $200-300 a night if booked eight months in advance but $400-500 if booked a month out.
6. Make restaurant reservations.
In the era of TikTok, when a place is popular with foreigners, it gets slammed all day. While it’s a great idea to get inspiration from TikTok, blogs, and other travel guides, you can expect places that are internet-popular to be booked far in advance or have long lines to eat. It’s a good idea to identify restaurants and cafes you’re most interested in eating at and making reservations if you can. Otherwise, it’s likely you’ll lose an hour or two waiting in line or you’ll miss out alotgether on that unforgettable meal everyone raves about.
Making reservations can be… interesting. Some restaurants have really specific email instructions, but most restaurants that take reservations are on third-party Japanese websites like hotpepper.jp and tabelog.com, some of which require advance payment for specific menus. You may also find some restaurants on pocket-concierge.jp, which is more foreigner-friendly. The rub is that not every restaurant uses every service, so you may have to register for a few of them. As a general rule, you can expect anything high-end (think Michelin Guide) to require advanced payment, but some mid-range restaurants also require it. These deposits are usually refundable as long as you cancel within the specied time (usually 24-48 hours).
6. Use Visit Japan Web to streamline entry.
As a result of the constantly changing of entry requirements due to Covid, the government streamlined the entry process with Visit Japan Web, a handy pre-registration service that can organize your immigration, customs, and Covid requirements all in one place. Though the Covid testing and vaccination requirements are expected to be dropped on May 8, 2023, you can still upload your visa and fill out customs paperwork before you arrive. Once everything is complete on Visit Japan Web, you’ll get individual QR codes that you can use to go through the fast track at customs and immigration.
7. Book your must-see attractions in advance.
There are certain attractions in Japan that are either extremely popular or have limited visiting availability, making it worthwhile to book them in advance. For instance, theme parks like Universal Studios Japan and Tokyo Disneyland. Though tickets to enter might not necessarily run out, you’ll save yourself a super long line to buy tickets by buying in advance, and you’ll be able to secure Express/Fast Passes which are limited in quantity and likely to sell out. (Yes, they’re double the price of the basic entry; but it’ll also save you a ton of queuing time inside the parks for popular rides.)
Imperial sites like the Tokyo Imperial Palace and Osaka Imperial Palace are free to visit, but guided tours are limited and require registration in person or online. Without preregistering online, you’ll have to go to the palace at the registration time to get a numbered ticket and return later in the day for your timed entry.
The Instagram-popular teamLab Planets digital exhibition is also usually booked at least a week or two in advance, and if you’re especially picky about a timeslot, you should probably book at least a month in advance.
Other sites and timed attractions that you may benefit from booking in advance include:
The Saijo-ji Moss Garden Temple in Kyoto
The Ghibli Museum in Tokyo
Tickets to Sumo tournaments
Guided tours of the Tsukiji Fish Market
A little planning in Japan can go a long way, and you’ll need all the time you can get while you’re there to take in all the lights, sounds, and delicious cuisine.