This page contains photos/tips-tricks/recommendations from our family vacation to Japan in the spring of 2023. We spent 17 days in Japan. Same for most of first timers visiting Japan, we set our bases in the following cities, Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka. From there, not only we toured destinations within the cities, but we also did day trips to designations near the cities. For example, while in Tokyo, we visited Lake Kawaguchiko, where we admired Mount Fuji from different angles, Nikko, home base of Tokugawa shogunate. In Kyoto, we did day trips to Nara, Kanazawa, Shirakawago and Hiroshima/Miyajima island.
Tokyo is a huge metropolitan. To get to anywhere, the best transit are subways and trains. For the above reason, you probably have guessed it, to book a hotel, it’s better to book one that is close to a subway or a train station, otherwise you will spend a lot of time on walking and transit, time that you would rather spend on sightseeing. Another thing is that Japanese transportation (either buses, subways or trains) is very punctuate. They are almost always on time, either coming or leaving. Taxi is another alternative if used wisely. It may add up quick if you go everywhere by Taxi. Buses may be good if your destinations can’t be reached by subways/trains. Buses may be crowded, especially in Kyoto.
Japan Rail (JR)
For longer train commute, like inter cities or even across Japan, there are Japan Rail (JR) trains. JR is not a single company, but a group of 7 rail companies (most notably, JR east, JR West, JR central, JR Hokkaido). Each of the JR companies is selling multi-day passes that provide considering saving to passengers if you take a lot of train traveling within the good-for period. As a whole, there is also a nation wide JR pass that is good for most (but not all) the trains run by the JR companies. For example, as the time of this article, JR pass doesn’t cover Nozomi and Mizuho trains, two of the most fastest train as of now. But as a tourist, you probably don’t need to worry about saving half an hour from a 3 hours train-ride by taking the fastest trains. Usually when people refer to “JR pass”, the national one is the one that they are referring to.
To know if a JR pass worths it or not, or if it’s better to buy individual tickets, go to this calculator: Japan Rail Pass Calculator. You will need to know your itineraries before you start your cost calculation. Current rail pass has 7 day, 14 days and 21 days versions, and they come at different costs.
As you have may have heard, Japan has a lot of etiquettes that are different from the western world.
- Walk on the left side (usually). You will get used to it pretty quickly. Some exceptions are that some subway stations have sign to direct you to walk on the right side so watch out for the signs. There is another exception in Osaka.
- No loud noises in the trains and public transportations. There are signs and some time public broadcast about this (muting your cellphones, etc).
- No walking and eating/drinking. You will notice that even for small food trucks/stalls, there are usually surrounded by people who are eating. It’s a good etiquette to eat your food right at the place that you purchase it from.
- No eating/drinking in public transportation. One exception is Shinkansen (bullet trains). Because of usually long distant and long hours, it’s ok to eat and drink in Shinkansen.
- Take your garbage back to your homes/hotels. You will notice that there are very few garbage cans in public places (I am not going to go into the reasons for it. Some say it’s because of public safety reason). You are expected to bring your garbage back to your homes/hotels.
- Bowing instead of shaking hands. This is another thing that you will learn very quickly. Japanese bow after almost every sentence as a way of respect or acknowledgement. That leads to some other customs, like Japanese are very comfortable sneezing into their palms, because they never shake hands.
- At temples and shrines, behave calmly and respectfully. You will visit one (or dozens) temples or shrines during your visit in Japan. There are a lot of etiquettes in a shrine or a temple. Too many to go into. But watch the locals do and try to follow.
- Tips, as in gratitude, is non-existent in Japan.
- Some sub-way/train stations are massive, especially the major ones in Tokyo. Give yourself plenty of time to find your way around the big stations.
- Price of an item is usually before tax. Some items have 2 prices, the second one (usually in brackets) is the one after sale-tax.
- Google translator (or your preferred e-translator) is your friend. You can use the translator everywhere, from translating menu of a restaurant, to ask for direction, or to do some simple conversation with the locals.
- Luggage forwarding between your places. If you don’t want to lug your heavy (or not) luggages between your hotels, airports (trust me you don’t want to lug them through busy subways, train stations), you can forward(send) the luggages to your next destination. The luggages usually arrive at the destination next day if you meet the cut off time when you send them(usually 3pm). Cost depends on size of your luggages and weight. For reference, the regular check-in size luggage with reasonable check-in weight costs about 2,000 yen. Ask your hotel concierge for details.
- Best season to visit Japan is…Spring and Fall. I have heard that Summer is hot and humid in many places of Japan, especially eastern Japan (Tokyo) and Western Japan (Kyoto). Depends on your heat toleration, it may or may not an issue for you. The main reason that Spring and Falls are the best in my opinion is the foliage. Spring you have cherry blossom and Fall you have Fall foliage.
Japan, with a mixed of traditional things and modern things, fascinates a lot of tourists every year. There was an article from BBC trying to explain why Japan has a mix of old and new things, “Japan was the future but it’s stuck in the past”.
Photos I took during the Japan trip
Kinkakuji (金閣寺) and Nijo Castle (二条城), Kyoto
Byodoin Temple (平等院) and Fushimi Inari Shrine (伏見稲荷大社)
Shirakawago (白川郷), Ogimachi (荻町/合掌村 )
Himeji castle (姫路城, Himejijō) and Osaka castle (大阪城, Ōsakajō)