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If you are wondering about where to start and how to plan a trip to Japan, then hopefully here will help put your mind at ease. If you have started planning a trip to Japan, you will understand the reason for this discussion. Japan has so many different places that you probably want to visit. If you are like me then this may be a long haul, potentially once in a lifetime, trip. If that’s the case, you definitely don’t want to waste any unnecessary time and money.
What Islands To Visit?
The country itself comprises of thousands of islands. But, generally speaking, Japan is split into four main islands. These are Hokkaido, Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku. The other islands are smaller islands off the coast of these four, with Okinawa being a popular tropical island for vacations.
Hokkaido is the second largest island in Japan, and also most northern of the four main islands. Due to the island’s geographic location, the winters can be freezing with lots of snowfall. Also, during the summer months, it does not get as warm or humid as the other main islands.
The island is also the least inhabited of the four main islands. This makes Hokkaido the perfect island for those who enjoy snowboarding in winter, or camping and hiking during the summer.
Kyushu and Shikoku
Kyushu and Shikoku are the smallest of the four main islands (Shikoku being the smallest). These two islands are located to the south of Japan. In contrast to Hokkaido, these two islands are much more tropical, containing volcanoes, natural hot springs and waterfalls. These two islands are definitely of the “off the beaten” track vibe.
Fukuoka is the largest city in Kyushu and is known for its bustling nightlife and its food scene. Shikoku is well known for the Shikoku Pilgrimage, which is a journey to all 88 temples associated with a Buddhist monk. There is plenty to do on these islands. However, if this is your first time visiting Japan, it is unlikely that many places on these two islands will be on your shortlist. Shikoku is also the only one of the main islands yet to offer a Shinkansen (bullet train) service.
Honshu, the largest island in Japan, is where most of the most popular cities are located. This is the island you probably imagine when you think of Japan. The 800 miles long island is populated by over 100,000,000 people. This island can be split up further into five smaller regions. In the north, you have the remote Tohoku, which is most popular for its hot springs. On the east coast is Kanto, largely dominated by the World’s largest city, Tokyo.
The most central region is Chubu, home to Nagoya, Nagano, Mount Fuji, although the near-perfectly shaped volcano can be spotted from a large part of the island. Heading south-west you are first met with Kansai, where Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe are all nestled closely together. Then finally, at the most south-western tip of the island is Chugoku. This is a mainly rural region, but home to the famous Hiroshima.
If this is your first time visiting Japan, then you should stick with Honshu. The map below shows some of the major cities and destinations that Japan has to offer.
When To Go To Japan?
There is not really a wrong time to visit Japan. However, the weather does change throughout the season. In the summer it can get pretty hot and humid. Autumn around September time can be the peak of the typhoon season. Winter usually brings with it some snow for most parts of Japan.
To avoid the heat in the peak of summer, spring or autumn can suit people as the temperature is warm but not too warm. However, September and October can be pretty wet, with the increased chance of a typhoon. I was slightly unfortunate enough to witness Typhoon Trami at the end of September/beginning of October in 2018 and nearly missed my trip altogether when Typhoon Jebi caused Osaka Airport to close.
Around March and April in spring can be a good time to go and witness Hanami. Hanami is the iconic images of Japan’s cherry blossom in full bloom. The downside of travelling around this time is that you will not be the only one. These months can be incredibly busy as people from all over the world arrive to view the cherry blossom.
Personally, I think November is the best month to visit Japan. The crowds will be low and the temperature will be nice enough to allow you to travel around without getting too wet either. This is unless you are heading to the north for some skiing or snowboarding. In this case, December or January is your best bet.
What Cities Should You Visit?
This area is a broad one and probably the most important for when you are planning a trip to Japan. Depending on your personal tastes and what you want to get out of your trip pretty much decide what cities in Japan you will enjoy the most.
If this is your first time in Japan, then I would recommend visiting Tokyo, Osaka and Kyoto. If you are travelling for a longer period of time and feel you can fit more in, then head further south to Hiroshima.
Tokyo needs no introduction. There is an insane amount of things to do in Tokyo. For this reason alone, spend as long as you can in Tokyo. On my trip to Japan, I spent 6 days in Tokyo and still didn’t manage to get round everything I wanted to see.
Osaka has unreal street food and nightlife. The city is the perfect mix of modern and historic Japan. What also makes Osaka a great city to visit, is that it is a perfect base for travelling to other cities nearby. During my trip to Osaka, I took day trips to Nara and Kobe. Both of these are a short train ride away. This means you have a couple of fewer days of carrying luggage around with you.
Kyoto transports you back in time. The city has a much more traditional feel than the bright lights of Osaka and Tokyo. Kyoto has endless historic shrines and temples. Besides Tokyo, Kyoto is the place you think about when you imagine what Japan would be like to visit. This is where you will see geishas hopping in and out of traditional tea houses.
If you are more of a lover of the outdoors, head further north to Nagano where you can hike up to the Togakushi Shrine. If you want to be at the foot of the giant Mount Fuji, spend a night in Hakone at one of the many ryokans. Spend time here relaxing in an onsen (natural hot springs).
Do You Need a JR Pass?
The JR Pass allows you unlimited rail travel around Japan for a specified number of weeks. This can only be used on JR lines so some train lines are not included. Luckily for you, JR lines cover the majority of routes anyway so this is not an issue. They can be used on the bullet trains so you can hop city to city in no time at all.
Many bloggers and travel experts will tell you that the JR Pass is the main thing you should buy without a doubt before your trip. However, after calculating my main train ticket fares, I worked out that it was actually slightly more expensive to buy a JR Pass rather than paying as I used the trains. This was because I took a one-way route through Honshu though. I will discuss that more below. Nevertheless, if you are planning on travelling from Hiroshima to Tokyo and back, or a similar round trip, I would definitely recommend the JR Pass to you as it will no doubt save you a few coins. It may also give you peace of mind that your transport is paid for prior to your trip to.
Do You Need To Fly To The Same Airport?
One thing to consider if you want to reduce travel time and potentially save yourself some cash is to fly into one city and out of another. This was you are not worrying about trying to fit in a round trip itinerary or spending a day heading back on a train the same way you just came.
When I planned my trip to Japan, I ended up flying into Osaka and out of Tokyo. This meant I could see travel from Osaka to Tokyo without having to worry about getting back. Therefore, I ended up saving money (as I did not need a JR Pass) and, more importantly, precious holiday time. This may not work in every case, but it is certainly something you should consider while planning your flights.
What Type Of Accommodation To Stay In?
Spending some time considering what accommodation to stay in during a trip to Japan can save you a small fortune, or open up your budget to fund other adventures. If possible, you should consider staying in a hostel. Some people believe hostels are dark, gloomy places with concerns over hygiene. This is absolutely not the case. Also, hostels in Japan are of a much higher standard than your average European hostel for example.
During my time I stayed in the Imano Hostel in Tokyo and the Ark Hostel in Osaka. Both of these were spotless and perfect for the time I spent in them. There were no issues at all during my stay in these hostels.
Saving on your accommodation may allow you to stay in a ryokan during your visit. During my time in Japan, I primarily stayed in a hostel, with a couple of nights in a cheap (ish) hotel. This meant I could afford to spend a night in a ryokan. This meant spending a night at a traditional Japanese inn without having a ridiculous accommodation cost, as staying in a hostel brought the average cost per night down.
If you can squeeze it into your budget, I would definitely recommend staying in a ryokan, at least for a night. The experience is so unique to Japan that you don’t want to miss out on the opportunity if you can. As part of my stay in Yuzuya Ryokan in Kyoto, a kaiseki dinner and fantastic breakfast were included. The service as a whole was just perfect.
Other accommodation you might fancy staying in is a capsule hotel. These are basically tiny little “capsules” that you can slide into, consisting of a bed, wall sockets and maybe a TV on the wall. That’s it. However, the main advantage is that this is a pretty low budget way to spend a night in Japan. These are primarily used by businessmen who have travelled into the city and can spend a night in the city before getting up and heading on.
Did this guide help you with anything or give you some tips on how to plan a trip to Japan? Let me know in the comments or have a look at some more information on Japan!