Article updated on May 15, 2020
Text: Claire Lessiau
A trip to Japan requires a lot of preparation if you organise it on your own. A few more details will make your trip even more enjoyable and sustainable.
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Way before you go:
- Learning a bit of Japanese is a huge asset! Indeed, the lack of English spoken can lead to a certain level of frustration… The NHK publishes a great 48-lesson program.
- Look into the JR train pass, as it is a convenient and cost-effective way to travel through Japan for foreign visitors. This will allow you to experience the excellent and otherwise very pricey train system.
- If you are planning on driving, make sure you have all the required paperwork. Depending on where your driver’s license was issued, you may need an International Driver License:
- This is the case for most countries like the USA. You need your passport and international driver’s license to be allowed to drive in Japan.
- If your driver’s license was issued in Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, Monaco, Estonia or Taiwan, you are allowed to drive in Japan with your passport, original driver’s license and its official translation. Should you want to get you license translated upon arrival in Japan, pay attention to the opening hours of translation offices (in our cases, we were landing on a Saturday when the Fukuoka office was closed to pick up the car on a Sunday…).
Before you go:
- Should you drive, take a look at our road trip articles for Kyushu, Shikoku and Hokkaido.
- If you are planning on bringing back some electronics or watches, make sure you check features and prices at home first. Even in the biggest stores of Akihabara, the electronics town in Tokyo, the language barrier makes it tough to get relevant info.
- Read about the do’s and don’ts to make sure you don’t make a fool of yourself or unwarily insult people. Here is a non-exhaustive list with a very few essentials:
What to bring with you to improve your experience:
- A paper notebook for stamps: in every touristic site in Japan, you will find funny stamps and ink pads to commemorate your visit. Stamp your way through Japan with your very own passport-like notebook!
- Non-disposable chopsticks: disposable chopsticks are constantly provided every time one buys food. It is estimated that about 24 billion pairs of disposable chopsticks are used in Japan, yearly, creating a serious environmental issue. Reduce your impact by buying your own instead – plus it is be a fun souvenir to bring back home!
- When you meet Japanese people or stay at their place, you are likely to receive gifts from them. It is polite to give a gift back. You may want to pack a few small souvenirs from home which you can give in return.
Many natural disasters can happen in Japan: earthquakes, tsunamis, volcano eruptions, typhoons and heavy thunderstorms in the summer… Make sure you research the apps to stay updated while traveling there, especially if you are planning to hit the outdoors.
Must-have apps for Japan
- Maps.me will be your best friend as it will help you navigate offline. As well as on the roads and on the most lost hiking trails. With this app you won’t get lost!
- VoiceTra is a speech translation app that allows you to speak in your own language to then translate it into Japanese and the other way around. As not too many people in Japan are comfortable speaking in English this app will come in handy!
- GuruNavi is Japan’s most popular gourmet and restaurant guide. It allows you to search restaurants and types of food in your area and read reviews from other customers. As the choice of excellent Japanese food is overwhelming this app will help you decide where to go and what to expect!
- Tokyo Handy Guide is the offical app from Tokyo’s Tourism Office. It contains practical maps of Tokyo and its surroundings. Besides indicating all possible points of interests it also contains interesting conent of places you might want to visit and you can use it offline!
- Japan Transit Planner by Jorudan, this app allows you to plan any train journey and calculates the most efficient way of traveling by railway (and air in fact!) and where to transfer.
Dates to watch out for
Three major holidays in Japan impact greatly domestic travel and accommodation:
- New Year
- Golden week: four holidays span over seven days from April 29 (Showa Day, the birthday of former Emperor Showa (1901-1989), known as Hirohito during his reign (1926-1989)) to May 5 (Boy’s Day, when families pray for the success of their sons). In-between, May 3 is Constitution Day commemorating when the post-war constitution was put into effect in 1947, and May 4 is Greenery Day, dedicated to the environment.
- Obon week in mid-August: during this national holiday, the Japanese people travel to their hometowns to pray for their ancestors as they are believed to visit their families on Earth. Food is offered at temples and ceremonial dances are carried out.
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