Traveling to Japan can be overwhelming for first time visitors, even well-seasoned travelers. We started planning our trip to Japan ten months in advance, scouring internet resources, social media, and friend recommendations. All of these notes came together for a (mostly) successful visit over the winter holidays. These are some of the most essential tips for visiting Japan, some which might surprise you, and others that will be necessary for a successful vacation.
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Top Japan Travel Tips
The Japanese culture is quite unique, effortlessly blending traditional Japanese customs with modern (and even futuristic) takes on life as we know it. It’s a destination similar to others, yet at times, a destination we have never seen before. Japan will overstimulate, surprise, and even confuse visitors, but in the end, we are sure you will walk away with a greater appreciation for the Japanese people and their country.
When to Visit Japan?
Ultimately, the best time to visit Japan depends on the interests of your family. Spring time (March to May) is easily the busiest time of year as it not only coincides with many school breaks, but also the cherry blossom season. If this is when you want to visit, I would recommend booking at least a year in advance for the best accommodation options.
Summer is typically the rainy season and it can be hot and sticky (especially July and August). If this is the only time to visit, head for the mountains for cooler temperatures. Fall is also very popular, as you’ll see a lot of colorful leaves, especially in places like Kyoto.
If you travel in winter (like we did), the temperatures in the cities are manageable, but you will likely have snow in the mountains. This is a popular time to travel for families who love to ski. The New Year celebrations in Japan last from January 1 to 3 (and a little bit on both sides of this), so be mindful that attractions (especially temples and shrines) will be extremely busy.
Flying into Japan
Japan’s major airports are Narita (NRT) and Haneda (HND) in Tokyo, Kansai (KIX) in Osaka, and Chubu (NGO) in Nagoya.
In Tokyo, Narita is fairly far from the center part of the city (it took us 1.5 hours due to traffic), Haneda is closer to the city (about 30 minutes without traffic). Pay attention to airport locations because you might want to stay close to an airport the night before your departure.
To save time upon arriving at the airport, go to Visit Japan Web to save time upon arrival. You will be asked to submit your travel details and can add the names and passports of the people traveling with you.
NOTE: You will have to go through the process for each passenger so everyone has their own QR code. This was not evident to me, so I only had a QR code for myself, causing some confusion upon arrival. Just an FYI so you don’t make the same mistake.
Japan requires everyone to carry a valid identification card when they are out in public. I was responsible for carrying everyone’s passports when we went out, but was never asked to provide identification.
Bringing medications into Japan
If you have any medicine you take on a regular basis, you need to check the Ministry of Health Website (HERE), before your trip. Some medications are prohibited, and if you need to bring them, you will need to fill out a Yunyu Kakunin-sho form.
We traveled with Benadryl and an Epipen (and brought a copy of the prescription), as well as thyroid and high blood pressure medication. The latter two are allowed in the country without a prescription, but you cannot have more than a 30-day supply. Please check for yourself before bringing anything into the country.
Airport Transfers: Taxis/Private Cars/Limousine Bus
I will say, I would highly recommend booking a private driver for airport transfers. Again, we were quoted some ridiculous pricing ($300+), but I found a company called Tokyo Airporter.
They had good communication, connected with me ahead of time on WhatsApp, and cost about $150 for a LONG trip from Narita Airport to Hilton Tokyo. We tried to book them for a return airport transfer, but they were booked, so be sure to make arrangements ahead of time.
In all of my research, there was never clear information about using taxis/drivers in Japan. Some people claimed they were over-the-top ripoffs, while others thought they were reasonable. We had a couple of experiences and would have to agree it was a mixed bag.
The first issue was our taxi we took to change hotels in Tokyo. Granted, Tokyo is massive, so it wasn’t a short ride, about 40 minutes. Our hotel concierge quoted us $60, but the final bill was closer to $100 (due to a service fee). Lesson learned.
On our return to the airport (from Tokyo Bay to Haneda), our actual fare was $40 less than what we were originally quoted by the hotel concierge. Make of it what you will, but I’m not sure there is any consistency when it comes to using taxis in Japan.
Note: We did not use it, but there is a limousine bus service that runs between the airports and central Tokyo. It seems fairly easy to use, and if you’re not in a hurry, this could be a great option. You will need to reserve spots ahead of time, and you can find the routes on their website – HERE.
Japanese Public Transportation
Japan Rail Pass
This might have been the trickiest thing for us to navigate, both before and during our trip. If you are spending time exploring outside of Tokyo, I would see if it is worth getting a Japan Rail Pass (also known as a JR Pass).
This is similar to Eurorail tickets in Europe where you stamp your ticket at the beginning of your journey and it is set for a period of time. We had a 7-day pass, but there are also 14 and 21-day options for unlimited travel throughout Japan. It is only available for foreign tourists.
Activating Your Japan Rail Pass
I ordered the tickets online (there are numerous vendors from Japan Rail Pass to Klook (just know the Klook return policy isn’t the best)). These were shipped in the form of vouchers to our house a couple of months before our trip. Tickets are tied to your passport number, so be sure to have these handy when you order them online and when you pick them up.
Most people will exchange the vouchers at the JR offices at Narita or Haneda Airports upon arrival. We were too tired to think about that, so we waited until after our first night and exchanged them at the JR East Office at Shinjuku Station (note: all members of your party will need to be present with passports when you exchange them).
We used our Japan Rail Pass for the Shinkansen bullet trains between Tokyo and Kyoto (and the return). When we exchanged our vouchers, we went ahead and booked seat reservations on both long-distance trains.
Note: If you have large luggage and you don’t plan to use a forwarding service (more on this later), be sure to reserve a space on the train for your bags. Only carry-on luggage will fit in the overhead bin on the train carriage.
We were also able to use the rail pass for the JR trains in Kyoto when we visited Fushimi Inari shrine on the JR Nara line and during our day trip to Arashiyama.
TIP: If you want to see Mt Fuji from your train window, you will need to book seats D and E. This applies to the Tokyo to Kyoto train and return trip as well.
Public Transportation Cards
Instead of purchasing individual point-to-point train passes, I would recommend investing in a prepaid IC card like Suica, Pasmo, or Icoca.
We picked up Suica cards when we swapped out our vouchers at the JR Office. (Note: there is a way to load these to your Apple Wallet, but for some reason we weren’t able to do so).
This is a debit card for the transportation system and you simply swipe it upon entering and exiting the train stations. Your card balance will be displayed each time you swipe it at the gate.
A Suica card (and the others) can also be used as credit cards and they are accepted at many convenience stores (just look for the logo), some vending machines, and even at the airports for purchases. (We used the remainder on our cards at Haneda Airport to purchase food and souvenirs).
There are ticket machines at every train and metro station for recharging the cards. Simply walk up to it, select your language on the screen, place your card on the reader, and insert the amount of money you want to add.
Not only can these cards be used for train tickets, they can also be used at subway stations and city buses. For us, it was easiest to keep all of the cards in one place and just hand them out when we were traveling.
Navigating Public Transportation
Trust me when I say Google Maps is going to be your best friend in Japan. Be sure everyone in your group has it downloaded before traveling. To use public transportation, simply enter your starting point and destination in the app. (Note: it even allows you to select your departure time).
Google Maps will tell you which entrance to use, which train line, the name of the train, how many stops, and how much time it will take from point A to point B (including time walking between trains).
It will also list the name of the exit so you can look for that when exiting the train. I would recommend having one person be the navigator, but know this is extremely draining on a cell phone battery.
Using the Shinkansen Bullet Train
We used the high speed train from Tokyo to Kyoto and the return. The departure point for the Shinkansen line in Tokyo is Tokyo Station, the largest and busiest train station in the country. Upon arriving, you will have to navigate to the Shinkansen departure area. We found it wasn’t very well signed, so give yourselves plenty of time to locate it.
There is no food service on the bullet train, so if you are traveling during meal times, be sure to grab something to go at one of the stores or cafes. You will be surprised by all of the delicious food options they have available.
When boarding the train you will want to have your ticket handy as it will show where your seat is located. Look for the carriage number (you can see these listed overhead along the track so you know where to board), and your seat assignments. Line up in the area that matched the train car listed on your ticket.
Once you board, you will be able to store your luggage over your seat or under your feet. If you have oversized luggage you will need to leave it in the space at the end of the car, as long as you have made a reservation for the bag.
The only time we were approached by a train conductor was when they were looking for people who improperly left their bags in this area.
Bathrooms (and trash) are typically found at one end of the car. There is a map at each seat that shows you what is available in your train car and both adjoining carriages.
Luggage Forwarding Service
I am going to recommend this for every single person visiting Japan – ship your luggage ahead! We were traveling with 5 small carry on roller bags and 5 backpacks. After our first trip on the Tokyo metro, I told my husband there was no way we could navigate the stations (and trains) with luggage in tow. Thankfully, he agreed.
We stayed at Mimaru Tokyo Kinshicho (great place to stay, didn’t love the location except for its access to trains) and the staff there was so helpful in arranging to ship our bags.
A day and a half before we traveled to Kyoto, we took five of our suitcases to the lobby where they completed the luggage transfer paperwork. Their first quote was about $15USD/bag, but upon handing the bags over we learned there was a quantity discount.
We only paid $12/bag to ship from Tokyo to Kyoto. The company they used is Yamato Transfer Service, and a tracking number was provided. Let me tell you, it was worth every penny!
We used the same service to ship our bags from our property in Kyoto to our final destination in Tokyo. We only had to turn over the bags 24 hours in advance, but again, it was worth it!
Essential Tips for Your Japan Trip
No need for pocket wifi
You will see a lot of people advocating for pocket wi-fi, but we found it was unnecessary. There are companies that offer airport pick-up and drop-off for portable wi-fi, however, these can drain your phone’s battery and we saw it as just another thing to keep track of.
My husband and I paid the daily international service rates through Verizon ($10/day/device), and our kids left their phones in airplane mode the entire trip. They found wi-fi in many public spaces, including restaurants, attractions, and in the hotel room at the end of the day.
If you want your kids to have service, I would recommend looking for an eSIM card (we recommend Airalo) or a local SIM card that allows them to have phone service for a reasonable rate.
Learn and Use Basic Japanese Phrases
This might be my most important Japan travel tip – download Google Translate and learn how to use it. We used it in restaurants, grocery stores, train stations, communicating with taxi drivers and shop owners, I mean it was amazing. I even used it to translate the settings on the washer/dryer machine at our hotel. It’s a game changer.
However, it doesn’t hurt to learn a few Japanese phrases before your trip (hello, goodbye, thank you, please, excuse me). Some Japanese will know small amounts of English, but these Japanese words will garnish a lot of smiles and head nods.
After a debacle this past summer checking our bags to Iceland, I was determined to travel with carry on bags for this trip.
Everyone took a backpack and a small roller bag. We were in Japan for 11 days, and the key was staying at a place with laundry during the middle of our trip. Many accommodations will offer laundry, but we loved our room at Mimaru Suites that had a washer/dryer in the apartment.
Accommodations in Japan
Speaking of accommodations, you will find a ton of family friendly options in Japan. There’s everything from private lodging to ryokan (traditional inns) and western hotels.
We opted for two different hotel chains, but 4 different properties. I knew upon arrival (and with jet lag), I wanted a hotel that might have the option of checking in early, so I chose Hilton Tokyo.
Located in Shinjuku, I figured it would be nice to have a central location for exploring. The property is also on the limousine bus route, so if I couldn’t find transportation, that was always an option.
The Hilton Tokyo was a great option. We had booked rooms with executive lounge access which was extremely helpful the first night we arrived and were too tired to go out. The property also has a fabulous breakfast buffet, and their staff was lovely.
Mimaru Tokyo Kinshicho
I had a difficult time deciding on the best Mimaru hotel in Tokyo. We chose the Mimaru Tokyo Kinshicho, and in hindsight, I would have chosen a different location. It’s very close to Kameido Train Station, which allowed for easy transportation throughout the city, however, the area is a little dicey at night.
I will say, one of our favorite places we discovered near the apart-hotel was the pastry shop next to the station (シェ・リュイ アトレ亀戸店). Every morning we would walk over and load up on a variety of treats to enjoy for breakfast. Yum!
Mimaru Suites Kyoto Shijo
In Kyoto, we stayed at Mimaru Suites Kyoto Shijo. Mimaru Suites tend to be a bit larger than the traditional Mimaru. We had a 3-bedroom Japanese suite, which was essential an apartment with 2 bedrooms, 2 full bathrooms, and a Japanese room with tatami mats, futons, and sliding paper doors.
This was the perfect setup for our family of 5 and it was easy walking distance to the nearest metro station. They also offered a happy hour every evening, Christmas surprises (like a visit from Santa), and fabulous service.
Hilton Tokyo Bay
Our final two nights we stayed at Hilton Tokyo Bay so we could have easy access to Tokyo Disney and Narita Airport. This property has a handful of restaurants and two convenience stores on the main floor of the hotel and it is easy to access by train.
The hotel overlooks the Disney fireworks or Tokyo Bay, so you can’t go wrong with the rooms. It’s also next door to the Toy Story Hotel which offers a massive playground that is open to all.
Book popular attractions in advance
There are many attractions you should book in advance to avoid disappointment. I tried to wing it on Shibuya Sky (because I didn’t know what the weather would be like), so I missed a chance to visit. Here are Japan attractions to book in advance (most of these are things to do in Tokyo unless noted):
teamLab Planets (can book up to 30 days in advance)
teamLab Borderless (new in February 2024, will be very popular)
Tokyo Disney and DisneySea – tickets available through the Disney website (I could not get it to accept my credit card information so I used GetYourGuide)
Ghibli Museum and Park
Universal Studios Japan (Osaka) – GET TICKETS HERE
Warner Brothers Harry Potter Wizarding World
Shibuya Sky (alternates are Tokyo Tower, Tokyo Skytree, and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building (which is free))
Food tour – highly recommend Arigato Travel – we did the Retro Shinjuku Tour
Cooking class – we did this ramen and gyoza making class with Chagohan Tokyo
Sumo experience – for a chance to wrestle with them and enjoy lunch!
Sumo tournament experience – tournaments take place six times/year. Dates vary, but they are typically in January, March, May, July, September, and November
Baseball games (run March to October)
Sanrio Puroland (aka Hello Kitty Land)
Tea ceremony in Kyoto
Go Kart tour – they are everywhere, and people love them!
Animal cafes – if you choose to do this, I would recommend going to a place where the animals enjoy the attention. We did hedgehogs, and by the end of the day, you could tell they were overstimulated. Maybe try the cats or dogs.
Tips for Visiting Japan: Cash versus Credit Cards
Almost everywhere we went (granted, we were in large cities) accepted credit cards. There were some smaller vendors and kiosks where we used Japanese currency.
**Tip: Bring a coin purse to keep track of all your change. These coins are great if you want to purchase something from a vending machine, make an offering at a temple, or need to load your transportation card.
Order currency in advance
I always like to have a couple of hundred dollars upon arriving in a destination. We ordered some Japanese yen in advance (about a month before departure). ATMs are fairly easy to find, especially in 7-Elevens and post offices. *Note: there will likely be a withdrawal fee, and possible service fees, so check with your bank in advance.
Shopping and Eating
Japanese department stores are next level. They have everything from food to fashion and everything in between. Check out the Shibuya Parco for its manga and gaming floor, and fabulous underground food court.
Tokyo Skytree has Tokyo Solamachi with over 300 shops and restaurants. Shibuya Scramble Square has shopping, a Starbucks, and restaurants (we tried dim sum at Ding Taifu Feng, and we would recommend). In Kyoto, you will find great options at Daimaru Kyoto and Takashimaya.
Try all the food
I can honestly say we never had a bad meal in Japan. This includes Japanese food, Mexican food, Italian food, and even hamburgers. We sampled drinks from vending machines (a blue label means cold and a red one means hot), purchased street food, and enjoyed five star dining. Even if your kids are picky eaters, there will be something they will eat.
Note: Do not be afraid to eat food from convenience stores (7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart), because they have some amazing options. I’m a huge fan of the 7-Eleven Egg Sandwich, and the kids loved the opportunity to find new favorites.
If you want to try one of the popular restaurants in Tokyo like Avatar Robot Cafe or Kirby Cafe, you will need to make reservations in advance. We only made reservations for a Christmas Eve dinner, and the rest of the time we just winged it.
The rumors are true about Japanese toilets, they are AMAZING!!! I told my husband we need a toilet with a seat warmer the next time we remodel a bathroom. If you are out and about and need a toilet, head to a department store or cafe.
Trash cans and plastic bags
Trash cans are few and far between in Japan, so it’s a good idea to bring a plastic bag or two from home and just keep it in your day pack. Good places to find a trash can are inside shopping mall food courts and coffee shops.
In an effort to cut down on waste, Japanese stores will charge for plastic bags. The amount is negligible, but it helps cut down on single-use plastics. If you have reusable shopping bags, it would be smart to bring them along.
Tipping in Japan
Tipping is not expected (and often not accepted) in Japan. The only people we tipped throughout our stay were the tour guides we used.
Japanese Souvenirs to Bring Home
Popular Japanese souvenirs include:
omamori (charms found at temples and shrines that bring good luck or protection)
sweets (my kids insisted on bringing back Pocky and KitKats (favorite flavors: apple, lemon, orange, and strawberry). We found the largest variety at the MEGA Don Quijote Shinjuku Tonanguchi
Note: You can find almost all of these items at the airports if you don’t want to travel around the country carrying souvenirs in your bags.
Whether it’s your first visit to Japan, or your tenth, there are bound to be some cultural differences. Here are some of the ones we noticed:
Eating in public doesn’t really happen. It’s not the worst thing you can do (and they’re very forgiving of children eating while walking or on the trains), but try to eat at a restaurant or in private.
Be on time. Just about everything in Japan runs on punctuality, especially transportation. Don’t make others wait if you can help it.
Don’t jaywalk. Only cross the street when the walk sign is presented.
When going up and down escalators, stand on the left and walk on the right. They also drive on the left.
Wait until everyone exits the train, before entering. Also, try to talk in hushed tones on the train, they tend to be fairly quiet.
Don’t blow your nose in public, and definitely don’t blow your nose at the table. It’s considered rude.
Hopefully these tips will help you navigate your next trip to Japan. I’ll continue to add more as I think of them, but these you help you get started.