How to Plan an International Trip to Japan

Planning an international trip can seem daunting, especially if you have never done it before. There are so many things to think about like currency, language, transportation, activities, passports, flights, hotels, and food.  Japan was the first international vacation we’ve planned, and while it was challenging to put together, we found it was a fun and successful trip. After going through the exercise ourselves, here is how to plan an international trip to Japan.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

Planning a trip to japan

Timing

The first thing we had to do after deciding on Japan was to figure out what time of year was best to visit.  In Japan, you can go any time, but chances are you want to choose between the obvious favorites of spring cherry blossom season or autumn colors.  Luckily, we live in a place in the U.S. that has cherry blossoms (and this felt a bit too cliche), so we opted to go see Japan in its fall beauty.  We looked into when fall colors were at their prime, and we went during the first couple weeks of November.

© LotsaSmiles Photography 2015

Locations

With the initial goal of autumn colors, we found that Kyoto was a must.  It is full of beautifully landscaped shrines and temples rich with history and traditional Japanese culture.  The second important location for us was Tokyo. Countless anime (of which we’re avid fans) and tales from others who have visited inspired us to visit.

Plan a Trip to Tokyo

Activities

Once we selected the locations, we then looked into the fun activities each offers.  With simple Google searches, we found many travel bloggers who had expert advice on the best things to see and do, and some off-the-beaten-path ideas that weren’t as touristy.  These are some prime activities we chose (warning: we vacation hard).

Tokyo

Studio Ghibli Museum, cat cafes, Ueno Park, Kaneiji Shrine, Meiji Shrine, Sensou-ji Shrine, Robot Restaurant, Tokyo Metro Government Building, bike tour, Oedou Onsen Monogatari, and even a Yakatabune dinner cruise.  The possibilities are endless here.  Just walk around, take in the sites, and stumble into a bookstore to see something new.

Cat Cafe in Tokyo

Cat Cafes

We visited several cat cafes in Japan. Each had its own charm and lots of cats to keep us company.

Yokohama (near Tokyo):  

Yokohama Landmark Tower, Cup Noodle Museum, Red Brick Warehouse, Onabashi Pier, Yamashita Park, and Chinatown.  Stop by the giant Ferris wheel to get a grand view of the city.

Yokohama Japan in Autumn

Yokohama Landmark Tower

This tower is the tallest building in Yokohama and has an observation deck with expansive views of the city. Tokyo and Mount Fuji are easily visible from the tower.

Kyoto

Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Monkey Park Iwatayama, Philosopher’s Walk, Nijo Castle, Kiyomizu Temple, Fushimi Inari Shrine, Nanzen Ji Temple, and too many other amazing temples and shrines to list.  Get to these places early to avoid crowds.

Plan a trip to Japan: Kyoto in Autumn

Kyoto’s most famous street

Gion is the most popular geisha district and is filled with shops, restaurants, and teahouses where geiko and maiko entertain.

Osaka (near Kyoto)

Our primary aim for Osaka was food.  Okonomiyaki and taiyaki are both Osaka specialties.  We met one of our friends there, but we weren’t able to stay as long as we would have liked.  Next time!

Plan an international trip to Japan: Taiyaki in Osaka Japan

What is Taiyaki?

Taiyaki is a fish-shaped cake typically filled with azuki sweet red bean paste. This quintessential Japanese street food is very popular at festivals.

Lodging

It was important for us to find lodging near transportation and activities while in Tokyo, but Kyoto was a different story. It was our goal to experience a traditional Japanese ryokan.  We wound up farther from train lines, but many choice sites were within walking distance.

How to Plan an International Trip to Japan: Hotel Room in Tokyo

Flights 

Choosing the best flight is a balance of price and travel time.  In our case, we flew Air Canada through Vancouver B.C. to Tokyo.  The flight times were reasonable, but we also had to think about our arrival time to make sure it wasn’t too late.  We left at 10:00 am and arrived at 3:30 pm the next day, which got us checked into our hotel at a reasonable hour.  On the way back we left at 7:00 pm and arrived the same day in Portland at 3:30 pm (gonna go back – in – time!). Crossing the international dateline will leave you with some killer jet lag.

How to Plan an International Trip to Japan: Flight

Getting around

If you plan to wander around Japan a lot, a JR pass comes in handy (unless you’re visiting the countryside, cars aren’t practical).  It allows you to ride the high-speed Shinkansen between major cities. It also helps you get around Tokyo easily without having to pay a fare each time. The pass is expensive but convenient, and we ended up saving money overall.  You will need to make reservations for the longer trips – such as Tokyo to Kyoto – so do so in advance.

How to Plan an International Trip to Japan: Shinkansen (Bullet train) Japan

Shinkansen (High-speed Rail)

Shinkansen trains run regularly at speeds up to 320 km/h (200 mph).  

It may seem overwhelming, but if you take it one activity at a time, you’ll quickly have an amazing trip planned.

How to Plan an International Trip to Japan: Sake in Japan

Now it’s your turn.  


How do you tackle a trip overseas?  Please let us know about your own planning experiences in the comments!


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2 thoughts on “How to Plan an International Trip to Japan

  1. Wow, that’s a big question! We fortunately had two weeks to fill with amazing activities. It also really depends on what kinds of things you’re interested in doing. We’re serious, hard-core vacationers, so we try to pack as much in as possible (there’s far more to do than you’d ever fit into a single trip, no matter how long). This post lists several suggestions. I loved the beauty of Kyoto and the hustle-bustle of Tokyo. The onsen (actually a sentou) in Odaiba was certainly a highlight, and the Robot Restaurant was fun for a kitschy, touristy evening. Cat cafes were a must, and as cheesy as they sound, we actually had a lot of fun at the maid cafe we visited. The ryokan in Kyoto was WELL worth the premium price (and the food is to die for – book well in advance). And if you find yourself in Asakusa, make a point to stop by Komakata Dozeu for lunch – a truly remarkable culinary experience that you’d never ordinarily stumble upon as a tourist.

    I recommend checking out my full recounting of our trip here: https://lotsasmilesphoto.com/2015/11/24/japan/

    I’m happy to answer any other questions you have, and I’d love to hear about your own experiences in Japan!

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