I’ve lived in Japan for my entire adult life and, somewhat frequently, friends, colleagues, and business acquaintances ask me for travel recommendations. Since I’ve written them a few hundred times in email and Slack I thought I’d put them here for future copy/pasting. These are opinionated and assume you’d ask me specifically for advice. If you want generic recommendations, Google and travel guides exist and they’ll give you a… fine… experience.
I assume you don’t speak a material amount of Japanese, are coming for a few days to a few weeks, and are trying to optimize on your time. If these don’t apply, you have better options than this page.
My one overarching piece of advice is avoid the beaten path for tourists. In addition to this being a good way to experience other countries/cultures everywhere, the boom in tourism in Japan over the last decade or so has made the beaten path… less than wonderful. You probably have heard excellent things about e.g. Japanese service culture or authenticity or whatnot. If you go to places that have hordes of foreign tourists your ability to experience it will be impaired.
I am not saying this for hipster cred. I would not have said it in 2004 or 2008 or even maybe 2012. All cultures change over time and this culture has perceptibly changed.
Even as someone who lives in Japan and speaks Japanese, I look like how I look, and in tourist-heavy areas in the last decade I’ve begun to get, I don’t know how to say this politely, a level of surliness and annoyance which does not meet the traditional expectation either here or abroad for tourism experiences in Japan.
You’re going to Tokyo, virtually no way around it. If you are savvy and are here for at least a week, you will likely buy the Japan Rail Pass, which is the best travel deal in the world (and which you must purchase before you get here), and which gives you unlimited trips on JR trains including most bullet trains at the price of less than one roundtrip to Kyoto/Osaka.
90% of you will want to go to Kyoto or Osaka. I’d tell you to pick Kyoto; Osaka has its charms, and the Osakans will regale you with them endlessly, but Osaka’s charms are like Tokyo’s and Kyoto’s are far less so.
Very few people take me up on this part of the recommendation: get out of the cities if you are here for more than a week in your life. Tokyo and, for example, small towns in Gifu Prefecture are approximately as different as London and the Italian countryside are. Both wonderful experiences, and some bits rhyme, but they’re very different wonderful experiences.
Smartphones have made Japan more than 100X more accessible than it was in e.g. the late 2000s. It’s truly remarkable. You probably shouldn’t expect anyone to converse with you in English outside of the airport and hotels in larger cities, but with good will and standard usage of apps already on your phone, you probably can get by.
Outside of tourist hotspots the overwhelming majority of Japanese service businesses (restaurants, cafes, hotels, and e.g. hair stylists) will not feel it is a great imposition to serve a foreign customer with limited Japanese proficiency. If you ever feel like the vibes are off prior to being served, feel free to make your apologies, walk out, and walk somewhere else.
I will note that, in a little town you’re unlikely to visit in central Japan, a hair stylist was so offended by hearing someone was turned away for a haircut that they walked into City Hall and asked if someone would please write “We will cut your hair.” in five languages so they could put it in their window. I feel this is overwhelmingly more likely to be representative of your experience versus discourses you may have heard about xenophobia.
Again, have to say it: a decade ago I would have confidently predicted this for tourist-heavy places and I no longer have arbitrarily high confidence for those places.
You should have most of your meals at places which you don’t know the name of and which, ideally, see relatively few foreign guests. Almost every train station in Japanese cities has an almost arbitrary depth of restaurants around it. The ones closest to the station are not your best options, but go out any station gate and walk 2-3 blocks (a few hundred meters) and then just walk in anywhere.
If you want ramen, eat ramen sitting next to a salaryman going home from work. If you want sushi, eat at a restaurant a middle-class family would make a special Saturday night out of or a little hole in the wall, not at one whose name appears in the New York Times frequently. If you want teppanyaki, find someplace on the 6th floor of a non-descript building sandwiched between a bar with six seats below and a cabaret-you-probably-shouldn’t-visit above.
You will get better service (if perhaps filtered a bit through the language barrier), frequently comparable or better food, and a much better story than if you go to places in the guide book or recommended by a foreigner-friendly hotel as being obvious places to go. (Pro-tip for talking to concierges everywhere: ask them where they would go, not where they would send you.)
If you absolutely must use review apps then Tabelog has better and more reliable coverage than Yelp or Google Maps in Japan. Note that Japanese reviewers are substantially pickier than you are, and so the right way to read 3.7 stars is “You will probably have a wonderful time.”
Japanese hotels are wonderful. You’ll pay more for a brand you recognize versus a brand which specializes in domestic visitors, at roughly comparable experiences, so why not try one of the local ones? APA Hotels is a perfectly serviceable chain for business travelers. If you’re optimizing for cost, many neighborhoods of Tokyo have salaryman-friendly hotels available at shockingly low price points (~$40 a night). These are not largely capsule hotels, which seem to target people who want to pay extra for the capsule experience. No, I don’t get it, either.
But if you stay in Japan you simply must stay in a ryokan at some point. Which one? Pick any, ideally either in Kyoto or outside of a large city. I usually find them on Jalan and believe me you will not find any more reliable tourguide than the starred reviews from picky Japanese domestic tourists. Most ryokan are extremely solicitous of foreign guests, though many will apologize for their limited English proficiency.
I’ve lived in Tokyo for about a decade, in the Nakameguro neighborhood.
See above; the best way to eat in Japan is to have no idea of where you’re eating. But if you absolutely must make some reservations…
Tokyo is a mecca for coffee snobs. I am not one.
Many smaller Japanese cafes are not thrilled by remote work culture. Please be considerate and do not damage their ability to make the (substantial) rent; they need to turn tables relatively quickly. If you are not surrounded by Japanese people with laptops out, and want to pull your laptop out, I’d recommend finding a Starbucks or similar.
What about Japanese coffee chains? I’m glad you asked, Internets. Doutour, Excelsior, and Ueshima Coffee are all perfectly adequate chain coffee, and I’d likely pick them in preference to Starbucks. Dotour has good sweet drinks, Excelsior sometimes feels classy, and Ueshima Coffee has a really nice light breakfast menu before 11 AM (on the dot).
Oh, power when getting around: prior to running out of cell phone power download ChargeSpot from your phone’s app store. You can find an automated kiosk with them either a) using the app or b) at almost every convenience store in Tokyo these days. Renting a (fully charged!) charger costs a ridiculously small amount of money and you can return it to any convenience store with a kiosk, as well as many other places.
I relatively recently got into 3D printing miniatures and painting them, and if you have a similar hobby, I have some recommendations.
See books for tourism recommendations but if you absolutely must ask me:
Notable standouts, though see above advice for how to eat in Japan, and it goes doubly for Kyoto.
I didn’t drink coffee when I lived in Kyoto and so I have no idea. Sorry!
If you want a semi-convenient way to see “the real Japan” (all Japans are the real Japan, etc etc), on the bullet train from Tokyo to Osaka/Kyoto get off in Nagoya and take a local train 30 minutes to Ogaki, where I lived for a decade. It is a truly charming town.
Yes, though it is very on the beaten path, and you can infer some things from that about what the human experience of a Fuji trip will be like.
I would likely not tell you to prioritize it on your first or second trip to Japan, but making the summit is both not a forbiddingly complicated achievement and was also one of the more memorable experiences of my life.
Cool. I don’t. Ask someone else.
Atami (about 40 minutes from Tokyo) is a wonderful resort town and has beaches available. While it is absolutely tourism-centric it serves mostly domestic tourists. Risonare Atami a particularly standout hotel to stay in among hundreds of great options.
If you go to Okinawa or similar and have a good time, please let me know. I intend to get out there one of these decades. (I did not explicitly plan this but did end up parking myself in one of the few areas of Japan which is totally landlocked for more than a decade, and so my beach-fu is largely limited to the time-honored Japanese tradition of flying to Hawai’i.)
I’m professionally fascinated with this topic but feel like the typical tourist doesn’t need to plan very hard about money management in Japan anymore. This was not always true.
Personally I’d pull 20,000 yen out in cash and keep it in your wallet in case you hit one of the (increasingly rare) cash-only places. Seven Eleven and post offices will accept almost any card you would use at home to get cash out; put the transaction through in yen and not in your home currency unless you want to donate to the payments industry. (We thank you for your support!)
Apple Pay / Google Pay are increasingly accepted in most of the places you’ll use most frequently. Your Visa/Mastercard/Amex are likely to work in the vast majority of places.
Purely for convenience value when using subways/buses/etc I’d generally suggest picking up a Suica or Pasmo (mutually compatible stored-value transportation cards similar to Oyster or Metrocard or what have you; they work in almost all transportation places across Japan). There is a 500 yen (~$5) deposit when purchasing it in cash; you can get it back from any train station (including at the airport) when you leave; most people end up accidentally donating it to the Japanese economy.
The Welcome Suica is specifically designed to trade the necessity for a deposit for a) a 28 day usage limitation (you don’t care about this) and b) not offering a refund of any money you put in if you put in too much. I would recommend most travelers just get the standard Suica instead; if you end up with < $10 on it (inclusive of deposit) then you can either get the refund, just keep it for your next Japan trip, or consider it a minor cost of travel. If you miscalculate and end up with much more, then just spend the few extra minutes to get the refund.
Overwhelmingly not worth your time. VAT here is only 8%~10% and you are unlikely to buy the thousands of dollars worth of taking-them-home-with-you goods that would make it reasonable to spend time optimizing for this.