In this post I’m sharing my experience and travel tips after planning and spending 30 days in Japan in November of 2023 (as a self-employed couple). I include information about how I planned the trip, the resources, websites, and tools I used, how we got around, what activities we splurged on, how much we packed, what we loved, and what we didn’t, and general tips + tricks for planning your own trip.
Feel free to skim this beastly post, or check out the interactive trip report where I break down our full 30-day itinerary. If you have any questions, please leave a comment at the end of this post!
Some Background & Context
We are an early 40s married couple that also run a business together. While this trip was very much intended to be a vacation, we would also be bringing our laptops so we could do some very light work and still run a few live calls during our trip.
Our Travel Style
We are pretty “go with the flow” travellers.
Our focus was on learning about and appreciating local culture, tasting the local food, exploring art, and enjoying the nature, gardens, and landscapes. We both have art backgrounds so a lot of our travel reflects our appreciation of art, both traditional and digital/interactive.
Generally speaking, we enjoy getting off the beaten path and experiencing more serendipity over highly curated tourist experiences (not that we didn’t indulge in a few of those as well!). We wanted a good mix of seeing some of the well documented must-see experiences, while also experiencing much of the day-to-day culture.
I planned a very loose itinerary based on the general areas of the country that we knew we wanted to visit, recommendations from others, and some preliminary research. We noted some key activities and events we wanted to do, and booked only a few things in advance, giving us plenty of room to go with the flow depending on our energy each day.
We saved all of these tips in a Notion dashboard while we did our research (you can read the post I did about that here). Eventually I stumbled upon Wanderlog, and this turned out to be a much more convenient app for travel and itinerary planning. Notion was great for the initial research and planning (notes about where we wanted to stay, recommendations people had given us, and booking we needed to make in advance), and great for sharing a travel log (after travel), but it wasn’t great for during travel (it loaded very slowly, often not at all without high speed internet).
At the end of the day, pinning bookmarks of restaurants and sights to your Google Maps is one of the best things you can do during your planning, as you’ll be using Google Maps a ton!
Before the trip
While learning Japanese is not necessary (signage in metro stations and on buses is in Japanese and English), this was definitely super helpful, and was important to us to make an effort to communicate in Japanese while we were traveling.
We started learning Japanese in March 2023, and had some very basic Japanese phrases when we left for our trip in November 2023.
We used Duolingo every day (until we hopped on our plane to Tokyo), consumed more Japanese content (movies, shows, Youtube videos), and took an online course, Japanese with Yuta to learn how to speak like a native Japanese person.
It was a lot of work, but it was also pretty fun, and the effort was definitely appreciated whenever we tried!
Purchasing a JR Pass
(Must be done in advance)
The JR Pass is Japan’s Railway pass allowing you access the country’s high speed trains. Do you need a JR Pass? It depends how many trips you plan on taking, and how far. You can use the website’s fare calculator to determine whether or not there is a cost savings.
If you decide to get a JR Pass you will need to purchase it in advance of your travel, as you cannot purchase in Japan. Make sure to purchase at least a month in advance.
We purchased a 21-day pass ($587 CAD) before the recent rate increase, and it was definitely worth it for us for the number of cities we saw and the amount of travel we did.
NOTE: It’s not super obvious, but your JR Pass covers a lot of metro lines within the city as well. When you get off the Shinkansen, if you need to transfer to the metro, your ticket usually covers any connected JR metro lines. For example, the Yamanote line in Tokyo is covered by your JR Pass. Simply insert your JR Pass ticket into the gates to open the gate, and collect it as you pass through on the other side.
It’s also not obvious when first traveling, but many stations have a nearby JR Station that can be 5-10 mins walk away. If you have a JR Pass, make sure to go to the JR Stations (and use the JR Stations when searching for available routes). E.g. Osaka Station vs Shin-Osaka Station. You may want to prioritize staying in hotels are a short walk from JR Stations.
A lot of folks will tell you to reserve your Shinkansen tickets in advance. We almost never reserved tickets in advance and always just lined up at JR ticket counters when we arrived at the station, or used the ticket machines.
You’ll likely be relying on Japan’s incredible metro system to get around day to day. The country has an incredibly convenient system that allows you to use your phone to tap in and out of stations easily with a digital transit pass (aka, IC Card). I promise this is way easier than using the ticket machines!
There are lots of different types of IC Cards; we used the Suica Card.
If you have an iphone, you’ll want to add a Suica Card to your Apple wallet; this is how you’ll pay for subway trains, buses, snacks at the 7-11, entry to certain attractions, and even some restaurants. Tons of shops accept IC Cards, so this is very convenient! Do this before you leave for your trip.
- Open your Apple Wallet on your phone and click on the + to add a new Transit Card: Suica Card.
- Connect it to a MasterCard (does not work with Visa unfortunately!) and load up a balance. (I did 5,000 yen to start, and topped it up 2 more times during our trip). You can add money to it on the fly anytime it runs low.
- Simply tap your phone at the gates when entering and exiting the metro stations and the fare is deducted automatically. You need to tap both upon entering and when exiting. (Make sure you have express pay setting enabled on the card settings).
- NOTE: You don’t need internet for your SUICA card to work, so don’t worry if you don’t have cellular or wifi enabled.
What to pack
Bring way less than you think. We each packed very minimally with a single backpack as our carry-on, and no checked luggage. Most hotels have great amenities (razors, wash cloths, shampoo, even pyjamas and robes!) as well as coin laundry (combo wash/dry machines!). We did laundry as we went, every ~5-7 days.
We checked one bag on our return trip which had most of our clothes, and some souvenirs. Watching people struggle through train stations with multiple huge luggage items was painful. If you plan to change locations several times, I wouldn’t recommend bringing rolling luggage, but this is obviously my personal preference as a minimalist traveler!
Things are very affordable in Japan, and it’s very cheap/easy to buy things you might need on your trip (umbrella, moisturizer, sunglasses, hats, and even a rolling luggage to bring home souvenirs, etc). Skip the “just in case” items. Weather was extremely warm for November; I was able to wear dresses and tank tops during that time, and may have even over-packed, assuming it would be much colder!
Here’s what I packed
What to wear
The Japanese dress much more modestly than your average North American. Even when it was sunny and hot, you rarely see anyone showing shoulders, and never any cleavage. Leggings are generally seen as stockings, and you don’t often see Japanese women wearing them except under dresses or large sweaters.
Most tourists wearing black leggings don’t realize how see-through their leggings are in the sun! Seriously people, your leggings are not opaque! /end rant.
The Japanese also tend to dress in very neutral colors. You will stand out if you wear color! Whether you want to blend in or stand out is up to you…
I kept it very neutral because it gives optionality and makes mixing and matching clothes easy.
Green is highlighting what I wore during travel. Red highlights the items I would have skipped based on number of times worn vs weight. I also purchased one sweater from a thrift store while I was traveling, and I wore it a lot!
- Most of the hotels provided pyjamas, so those were unnecessary.
- The weather was warmer than usual for November, so I would have skipped the extra black cardigan.
- The dressy leggings were similar enough to the black jeans that I think I could have skipped them, (even though they are very comfortable!)
- I didn’t need the extra t-shirt, only wore it a handful of times.
Collapsable shopping bag. This comes in handy to carry snacks, souvenirs, or the occasional garbage you may create along the way during your travels (empty bottles or cans, food wrappers, etc). Get one that’s super lightweight, and can fold down into a tiny bag you can fit in your purse or pocket. You can also pick one up while you’re in Japan, and you’ll have a practical souvenir!
Collapsable daypack. This was incredibly useful for doing long day trips without needing to bring a bigger, bulkier bag. This way we could leave our main travel backpacks at the hotel, and have a lightweight option to carry extra layers, sunscreen, glasses, mobile wifi device, phone chargers, snacks, water, etc. Amazon link.
Hydration pack. This was convenient for daily travel. I would always fill it with water from the hotel before we left for that day. It collapses as you drink so it takes up hardly any space in your bag.
Refillable toiletries. Just take what you need using small refillable containers. Everything gets stripped down, and I only bring the bare essentials!
Merino wool is your friend! It lasts longer without smelling like cotton does. It dries fast and can layer easily so you can keep warm with less articles of clothing. Consider bringing some long sleeved merino shirts and socks. We both brought shirts from Unbound Merino, and Ben brought all merino wool socks; he says he can never go back!
Comfy Shoes! Focus on Comfort. Leave your heels and dressy shoes at home. You’re going to be walking a LOT. We easily averaged 20k+ steps each day. We each brought a single pair of shoes. I brought my Vessi white Cityscape Classics; they’re waterproof, and the most comfortable shows I’ve ever owned. Many Japanese women wear sneakers, runners, and comfortable footwear even with nice dresses.
Universal adapter (with usb and usb-c). Japanese outlets are basically the same as North America, but without the third grounded prong. If you need to charge a laptop or anything that requires a grounded plug, you’ll want an adapter. Amazon link.
Portable power bank. This is super helpful for making sure you can charge up your phone or devices on the go, especially if you have an older phone that doesn’t hold a charge as long. You’ll be using your phone for maps and taking pictures a lot, so this is pretty essential. (I might have gotten a smaller, lighter one). Amazon link.
Activities + Sightseeing
It is tempting to cram a lot into a single day, but travel can often take more time than you plan for, and you’ll do much more walking than you think. Don’t try to plan more than 2-3 things in a day, especially if they are in the same vicinity. Try to group your activities by neighbourhood/location. You can’t see everything, and I promise you’ll want to leave some time for spontaneity, wandering and simply discovering the cities. Japan’s alleyways are truly magical; I promise you’ll want to give yourself time to explore them.
Advance reservations were only made for the Studio Ghibli Museum Tour, Chichu Art Museum, Sumo Grand Tournament, Universal Studios, TeamLabs Botanical Gardens, and Teamlabs Forest Fukuoka.
Since we were staying 30 days, we wanted to spend time exploring a number of different cities, not just Tokyo. How many cities you should you explore? Depends on the length of your trip and your individual travel preferences.
If you have a chance to check out a Sumo match while you’re traveling, I highly recommend doing so! Make sure to book your tickets well in advance.
A pro tip is that the more experienced fighters go later in the day. It’s a full day event; depending how committed you are, you might want to head to the venue after lunch.
It’s an incredible spectacle!
You may be tempted to use Airbnb, but in my personal opinion, hotels are often cheaper, higher quality, and a much better overall experience. Amenities are excellent, and Japan’s service culture is notable.
I booked all of our hotels through booking.com between 6-8 weeks in advance, and only one via Airbnb. The sooner you book your hotels, the cheaper the rate. As your date gets closer you will notice prices increase.
Try to book hotels close to major metro stations (and JR Stations if you get a JR Pass), within a max 10 min walk. We really enjoyed staying in the Taito City area near Asakusa station in Tokyo.
Hotels are generally a lot smaller in Japan, so be prepared, especially if you’re travelling and staying with others.
We went to our bank a few weeks before departure and withdrew around $1,000 worth of Yen (¥) each, and we had some leftover at the end of the trip.
Most places (stores, restaurants, etc) accept Visa and Suica (though depending on your bank you may incur a transaction fee), though you will want to have cash on hand for entry to certain temples, food stalls, or cash-only stores.
You can also withdraw cash easily from ATMs and 7-elevens.
Lots of shops offer tax-free purchasing on totals over $50. Keep your eyes open for the “Tax Free Shopping” signs, and hold on to your receipts as you’re traveling.
At the time of this post, the exchange rate was roughly ¥100 = $0.93 CAD. If you round up, it’s a lot easier to do the math on your purchases. ¥1000 becomes $10, ¥10000 becomes $100 and so on.
Culture + Differences
It’s worth learning at least a little bit about the Japanese culture before you visit. This is a culture that respects other people in a way that is different than many other countries. There are different social rules and expectations, and it can be helpful to learn a few things to avoid being rude or disrespectful. There are also just lots of general differences that can be helpful to be aware of in advance. Here are some anecdotal observations, notes, and tips based on interactions and conversations with local Japanese folks as well as personal experience.
- The Japanese generally have a culture that follows the rules. They don’t j-walk (even if there are no cars anywhere nearby); they wait for the light to change. Similarly, you don’t have to fear getting accidentally run over by cars when crossing the street. Cars always wait for pedestrians. Even though pedestrians have the way in Canada and the US, you always have a feeling that you’re taking a risk when you cross the street! Drivers are typically much more impatient and will honk at you. I’m not sure I ever heard a horn in the 30 days we were there!
- People line up politely and are very aware and mindful of the space they take up.
- People are generally very quiet and respectful, especially on public transit. Talking while on public transit is generally considered rude, and you will see signs about this on the metro. Related, if you have a large backpack on the metro, carry it on your front, and not your back. Be aware of your space.
- They have an exceptional service and hospitality ethic, which can be a bit uncomfortable at times, especially if you stay at a more traditional ryokan.
- Japan is very safe, and people are generally respectful. You don’t have to worry about theft or violence the way you might in North America. You don’t generally need to fear walking alone at night, or getting assaulted. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but Japan has one of the lowest homicide rates in the world. Even areas that might appear “shady” are not really what you would call shady here in Canada. We never experienced any harassment – people mostly mind their own business.
- The country on the whole is very clean, but you won’t find public garbage bins anywhere. You’re expected to take your garbage with you and dispose of at home, or at your hotel.
- Japan’s toilets are next level. Truly, they have perfected the art of doing your business. Firstly, you don’t need to fear or avoid public toilets as you might in North America (where you never know what kind of surprise you’ll walk into, or what state the washroom will be in).
In Japan, toilets are not only clean, but they have a bidet with a wide variety of functions. When you first use a Japanese toilet you might be confused or overwhelmed, since many don’t have obvious instructions, but they do have fabulous icons! Most bidets allow you to select front wash or bum wash, direction of spray, pressure level, and even sounds to play over your bathroom activities to make them more… discreet. Oh, and the seats are always warm when you sit down!
Sometimes, however, the flushing function is not part of the bidet function, so sometimes it can take a moment to locate the flush button. Sometimes there’s a handle like a traditional North American toilet, other times it is a button on the wall behind the toilet, other times it’s a button near or on the bidet area. I’m not sure I ever experienced a single disgusting bathroom experience.
- Speaking of bathrooms… a notable difference is that most bathrooms do not have paper towel or dryers. Many people bring their own cloth with them to dry their hands.
- The Japanese tend to be a bit shy about their English, but they very much appreciate any effort you make to speak Japanese! Learn the basics, especially please, thank you, excuse me, and some basic numbers, etc. Bonus points if you use some of the lesser known but highly appropriate phrases like itadakimasu, gochisousamadesu, arigatou gozaimashita.
Often in restaurants you are in full view of the person making your food, which is why some of these phrases can be nice to know, as they are an opportunity express gratitude to the person who prepared the meal. Often the chefs and servers will yell welcoming phrases at you when you enter an establishment. This is definitely a big cultural difference from your typical North American restaurant experience.
Speaking of restaurants, there are some other notable differences here. In Canada it feels like many cafes and restaurants are designed for lingering. You order something… then maybe you check the menu again and order something else. People often go to restaurants to catch up with friends and end up staying for hours sometimes. Restaurant culture in Japan feels a bit more practical, like you’re meant to eat, pay, and leave so the next patrons can make their way in.
When you enter an establishment, you’ll be greeted by a server who will want to know how many people are going to be sitting. You can hold up your fingers and say, “futari” (two) or “hitori” (one).
Most restaurants have English menus and you’ll typically be provided with an English menu. Sometimes you’ll be handed a Japanese menu with photos, and other times you’ll receive a Japanese menu without pictures at all. This is where Google Translate / Lens is your friend. Open the Google Translate app and click on the photo mode. When you point your camera at Japanese writing, Google will translate it in real time (as long as you have an internet connection!) Then you can typically point to the meal(s) you want to order.
Be aware that some establishments have small table fees which typically include an appetizer, and many also require a minimum one drink order per person.
You’ll typically order your food and the bill is given to you at the time the meal is brought to your table, or as soon as you’ve finished eating.
You’ll receive a wet towel (oshibori) for cleaning your hands before you eat, and chopsticks.
You don’t typically need to chase the staff down to get your bill. If you find yourself waiting, simply walk toward the cash register which is often near the entrance of the establishment, and someone will appear and punch in your order, and they’ll point to the display with the amount shown in Yen. Some restaurants are cash-only (so be prepared just in case), though most accept Visa and even Suica. Typically you’ll notice the signs at the cash register and on the restaurant windows.
In some establishments, you’ll pay at a ticket machine in advance, and present your ticket to the server.
If you’re paying cash, put your money in the tray provided (vs holding out your money).
Tipping is generally considered rude; don’t do it.
I’m a foodie; most of my day is focused on eating, thinking about food, and planning my next meal. I am vegetarian but my husband is not, though also loves and appreciates vegetarian food too.
The food in Japan is seriously excellent. A lot of people talk about making reservations in advance, and there is certainly a cultural expectation around making reservations when you want to eat at popular restaurants (which often have long lines). We never made a single reservation, and we were only turned away once. Otherwise, for the most part you can pretty much dip into any place that looks interesting, and the food is pretty much always amazing (we only had one dud!) Seriously, it’s hard to go wrong.
Don’t over-plan your food experiences; alleyways are magical, and you’ll want to stumble upon places and explore things that look tasty!
- Anecdotally speaking: some of the smallest food establishments had the best food.
- As a Canadian, we found the food to be shockingly cheap.
- The food in train stations is often surprisingly good!
- Don’t shy away from international foods, especially curry and pizza. Japan does so many different cuisines well!
- The markets and grocery stores often have pre-made food and bentos which are delicious and can be a great way to save money or eat a quick snack on the go.
- 7-11 actually has decent food options, and is great for picking up a quick breakfast (since Japan is not big on breakfast, and it can be challenging to find breakfast food as most things don’t open until after 11am).
- Line-ups for restaurants are common, and are usually a sign that the food is good (though not always). Lining up for 30m or so is not uncommon. We only waited in line a handful of times during our trip.
Being a Vegetarian in Japan
Personally, I knew that being a vegetarian was likely going to present a bit of a challenge, so I made the decision that I would be more flexible while I was travelling, leaning toward a more pescatarian diet.
Fish and seafood is a big part of the Japanese diet and food culture, and I was open to that aspect of the experience as a personal challenge. This is obviously a personal choice, but I will say that this made things a lot easier and less stress. (Especially since a lot of broth and flavorings are made with fish and various seafood ingredients).
While vegetarianism is not as common in Japan, that that doesn’t mean you can’t eat plenty of delicious food!
Here are some tips and observations from a vegetarian traveler.
A note about menus and ordering food.
In Japan you will often find that your food order contains meat even when it is not mentioned anywhere in the description. I continued to be surprised how many times I ordered something that didn’t list any meat, only to find more than one type of meat inside, or wrapped around. Even if you think you’re ordering something that seems obvious it wouldn’t have meat in it, make sure to bring up your preferences.
Surprise pork is everywhere!
Seriously, I ordered a bunch of vegetable skewers from a menu under the heading of “vegetables,” and every single vegetable skewer came wrapped in bacon!
This is where having a diet card can really help you. A diet card is basically a small printed card that states your dietary needs or preferences that you show when you are ordering food. If you have strict limitations, always show this card to be sure.
Alternatively, have Google Translate ready to go with your translated statement to show the server, or knowing how to say “niku wa tabe masen”. Even better is saying you have a meat allergy!
While there are plenty of vegetarian/vegan restaurants in Japan, you can usually find plenty of tasty vegetarian options at most restaurants by doing a quick search on Google Maps, or check out a resource like Happy Cow which is a comprehensive directory of vegetarian and vegan restaurants around the world.
If you look some of these up in advance, be sure to save them to your Google Maps for when you’re traveling.
I found most Indian restaurants had amazing vegetarian options (every curry we tried was out of this world).
Some of my favorite vegetarian restaurants that we dined at:
- Kawa Kitchen – Asakusa, Tokyo
- Ain Soph – Ginza, Tokyo
- Kiboko – Shinjuku, Tokyo
- Luu’s Bao (food truck) – Osaka
- Will you curry me – Fukuoka
- Aisunao, Naoshima Island
Truthfully, some of my favorite meals were simply vegetarian dishes served at non-vegetarian restaurants. The chef’s recommendations at Ashi in Asakusa, the Turkish platter at Ali Baba in Okayama, a lunch set menu at Salt in Okayama, the curry ramen at Oretachino in Osaka, etc. While some days presented challenges, on the whole, the food of Japan was the highlight of the trip.
Want to see the full list of restaurants with pictures of real meals we ate along the way? Check out the interactive itinerary!
Tools, Apps, Other Tips
- Google Maps for getting around and planning your routes.
- Google Translate app is your best friend. Use the photo mode to translate any Japanese into English in real time.
- Airalo or Googlefi for mobile internet. You won’t be able to use Google Maps or Google Translate without it, so having internet will definitely help you in your travels (aspecially if you have to pull up any bookings you’ve made via app or email). I purchased a mobile sim via JR Pass, and it was pretty bad; I can’t recommend it. Internet was super inconsistent and spotty!
- Klook.com for booking excursions.
- Booking.com for booking hotels.
- Go to Visit Japan Web and fill out all of your travel details in advance. This will make going through immigration a breeze when you land. There was a huge line when we arrived and we went right through with our QR codes!
During the Trip
Transit / Metro
The metro system is incredibly convenient, though it will absolutely feel intimidating at first! Tokyo station and many of the other major stations in the city have an enormous number of subway lines, and stations can get quite crowded, so you want to have a sense of where you’re going when you get into the stations.
- Google Maps is great for showing you the available routes. Simply plug in your starting point and desired destination and Google maps will offer a number of different routes you can take.
- Note which metro line you plan to take (Ginza, Asakusa, etc), the station number you’re heading to (e.g. A19), and the exit gate number (from google maps), so you know which way to walk when you get off the train and look for an exit.
- Almost everything is labelled in both Japanese and English. It helps to take note of the name of the next station (expand the stops in your Google Map route) so you know if you are heading in the right direction. Note the platform number (from Google Maps), as that is what helps you sort out which direction you’re heading.
- Trains and stations can be very busy around rush hour (~6pm), and weekends, so standing around without knowing where you’re going can disrupt the flow of people. Try to walk with intention.
- It’s generally considered impolite to talk while on transit. You’ll notice that most folks are very quiet and respectful.
- Some routes are “express” or “limited express” and require the purchase of an additional ticket. It’s not always easy or straightforward to navigate the ticket machines, so just be aware that while many trains will pass through the platform, the next train isn’t always necessarily your desired train. An express train might skip your next intended stop, so make sure to read carefully!
Reservations + Bookings
JR Pass tickets
The JR ticket machines are a bit tricky to figure out at first but are easy enough to sort out (when there isn’t a big line waiting behind you!). Going to the JR Rail ticket counters at the JR stations ensures you will always book the right train. Present your JR Pass and let them know the name of the station you want to travel to. If you are near or in a JR Station, you may want to reserve your tickets in advance if you already know when you want to depart, but we preferred the flexibility of going with the flow, and always got our tickets by showing up early to the station and hopping on the next available train. (This may be different if you’re traveling at peak times!)
After the Trip
I just returned from our trip less than two weeks ago, so I’m still grieving. Please respect my privacy during this difficult time.
Okay but in all seriousness, Japan is an incredible country. It surpassed all my expectations on every level, and I know I will return soon! The food, the people, the culture, the beautiful gardens and landscapes, the art… all of it was an incredibly beautiful and memorable experience.
While there weren’t many challenges during the trip, I will admit that I was pretty shocked by Japan’s single use plastic coming from a country that bans straws and plastic bags! Often a single use item is wrapped in not just one, but multiple layers of plastic and packaging. Every piece of produce is wrapped in an individual piece of plastic wrap. It’s way too easy to generate garbage as you go!
But I’m currently still in the honeymoon phase, so I’ll refrain from speaking ill of Japan.
Let’s finish by celebrating their epic gardens and landscapes, ok?
I documented our daily journey while we were gone and compiled it into an interactive itinerary built with Notion. Check it out if you want some honest opinions on some of the activities and sights we saw while we were in Japan.
Hopefully it inspires your next trip!