Travel to Japan: The ultimate guide

Samuel Clennett

Japan: it’s the dream tourist destination for millions. This fascinating, beautiful country boasts a culture that’s excitingly different from what you’re used to, and contains both the hyper-modern city of Tokyo and some stunning sites of natural and historic beauty. It’s a hotspot for tourists, of course – but this one’s worth braving the crowds for. Here’s our guide to how to get started planning your trip to Japan.

This guide also contains some tips on a particularly tricky issue: travel money. It’s never easy to know the most efficient and cost-effective way to spend money when you’re travelling overseas, which is why we’ve included a few useful pointers here.

Do your research

You already know this, but it’s worth stating it once more: the better you plan, the more you’ll get out of your trip. That’s particularly true when you go somewhere like Japan, where the considerable cultural differences – and particularly difficult language – could trip you up if you’re not prepared.

Here are some of the areas in which it pays to do your research – all of which are covered later on in this guide.

  • Make a plan for paying for stuff. Japan is an expensive enough country in the first place, so the last thing you want is for the trip to cost twice what you thought it would because you haven’t used the right debit card.
  • Book your accommodation in advance. Hotels and so on are not an area where it pays to be spontaneous in Japan, so you should put together a full itinerary before you go.
  • Plan your travel as well. Similarly, it’s not a good idea to wing it when it comes to transportation. In fact, as you’ll see later on, one of the best options for rail travel can only be purchased in advance of your trip.
  • Consider booking your activities too – or at least making a schedule. Even your daily schedule might well benefit from some advance planning. Some popular activities need to be booked well in advance.
  • Read up on the culture. While part of what makes Japan such a unique experience is the wealth of cultural differences, there’s not much fun to be had in inadvertently being rude to people or accidentally littering. That’s why it’s worth reading around in advance of your trip, to make sure you don’t make any truly awkward faux pas.

How to get the most for your money

Generally speaking, Japan is an expensive country, but how much your trip to Japan will cost naturally depends on what you’re willing to spend. But regardless of whether you’ll be staying at a luxury retreat or spending your nights in a capsule hotel, you shouldn’t pay more than you have to.

That means making sure you can access your money in an efficient way. Well in advance of your trip, find out what your bank will charge you to use your debit and/or credit card there – and also consider whether it might be worth getting a travel money card.

Whatever you do, watch out for the exchange rate. If it drifts too far away from the mid-market rate, you’re going to be losing out every single time your money switches currency.

Despite Japan’s technological brilliance, it’s still pretty fond of cash payments. Habits are slowly shifting, but they’re not quite there yet – it’s useful to keep some cash with you at all times, just in case. Especially if you’re heading out of the city¹.

Bear in mind, though, that you may face a fixed fee when you use an ATM – find out if your bank charges one. If so, you’ll need to limit your ATM withdrawals carefully.

Get a specialist account for your travels

Manage your money as you travel cheaply and easily with a Wise borderless account.

Open your account online before you leave, and hold, send and receive dozens of different currencies. You can manage your balances using the Wise app, and spend easily using the Wise borderless Mastercard.

Just top up from your home bank account, and convert to the currency you need to avoid foreign transaction fees. All currency conversion is done using the mid-market exchange rate with no markup, which can mean it’s far cheaper than relying on your regular bank.

Get to know the visa situation

If you’re an Australian citizen, there’s good news: you don’t need a visa to visit Japan as a tourist, so long as your trip isn’t more than 90 days long². The same is true for many other nationalities too³.

If your plan is to earn money during your trip, that’s different: look into a Working Holiday Visa or a full Employment Visa.

Accommodation in Japan

You won’t be short of choice when it comes to places to stay in Japan – although do book in advance to make sure you get the sort of place you want. Here are a few of your options:

  • Hotels. Like everywhere, you can find cheap ones and expensive ones in Japan. If you’re on a budget, business hotels can be great – they’re more no-frills than the name might suggest. Check out well-known sites like if you want an easy fix.
  • Hostels. Not necessarily a cheaper option, hostels can allow for a more relaxed stay where you can cook for yourself and perhaps meet some fellow travellers. One well-known, reliable chain aimed at backpackers is K’s House.
  • Capsule hotels. They may be pretty famous internationally, but capsule hotels aren’t really aimed at the tourist market. If you find yourself in a jam, though, one of these tiny sleeping pods could be a useful (and cheap) option. Many only admit men, though.
  • Ryokans. Now things are getting interesting. If you want a more traditionally Japanese experience, find yourself a ryokan – an inn, which should come with a traditional tatami mat bed, low furniture, lashes of green tea, and some gorgeous scenery outside. It may be more expensive than a hotel, but it’s a tourist experience in itself. A smaller-scale, budget-friendly version is known as a minshuku.
  • Airbnb. Just like everywhere else, Japan is home to plenty of places on Airbnb – another effective way to see the country on a budget.
  • Love hotels. Strange but true: if you want a single night of passion, or even just a few hours of it, you can book into a “love hotel”. They’re actually surprisingly useful even if you have other things on your mind, as you don’t generally need to book in advance. Many have a “no re-entry” policy, though.

Never Ending Voyage, Japanistry and Japan Guide all have some useful accommodation tips.

Getting around in Japan

Japan’s transportation system is justifiably famous, but it does take a little planning. Here are some tips.

  • Get a Japan Rail Pass – if you’re travelling around. For long-distance train travel, you can’t beat the Japan Rail Pass, which is only available to foreign tourists. It lets you travel on many trains as much as you want, for 1, 2 or 3 weeks. You won’t be able to get it once you’re in the country, so if you want one, get it well in advance. Remember, though, if you’re mostly staying put, it could prove a poor investment: a week’s pass costs JPY 29,650, which is approximately AUD 400⁴,⁵.
  • Try a Bus Pass if you have time. It can’t match the speeds of the shinkansen, but a bus can also get you where you need to go. There are decent bus options too, and a more affordable pass can be yours if you don’t mind a bumpy night’s sleep.
  • Look into regional passes. If you’re travelling around one area, check out what regional passes are available – the JR (Japan Rail) Tokyo Wide Pass, for instance is for foreigners only, and is great value for travelling in and around the capital⁶.
  • There is a top-up card too. Yet another sort of card is the Suica – a prepaid money card you can use for transport and a little bit of shopping. You can just swipe it at the train station, and then use it to buy yourself a coffee too⁷.
  • Rent a car… if you’re in the countryside. Look, please don’t do this if you’re staying in Tokyo, but if you’ll be outside the big cities, there are options for car rental too.
  • Don’t forget about Google Maps. It works in Japan just like everywhere else, and could get you out of some tight spots. Or, for something that’ll tell you about rail passes too, check out HyperDia.

Sights to see

The thing about Japan is that it’s got something for absolutely every taste. You can spend your holiday speeding around Tokyo in a go-kart, or literally stay in a temple – it’s up to you. Here are a few things somewhere in between those extremes, though.

  • Mount Fuji. Top of many people’s lists in Japan is the beautiful – though often cloud-covered – mountain. Even if you don’t climb it – which is pretty tough – you should go and try to get lucky with the views. The nearby lake Kawaguchiko is a wonderful place from which to see it.
  • Onsen towns. Onsens are hot springs fuelled by volcanoes, in which you can bathe. It can be a bit of a culture shock, as nudity is generally required, but it’s a wonderful and unique way to spend a while in Japan. There are even “onsen towns” – whole towns that have sprung up around an onsen – in which, don’t worry, you can sometimes be fully clothed.
  • Shrines and temples. Kyoto is especially renowned for its beautiful temples and shrines, but there are many more elsewhere around the country. Do take some time out to explore.
  • The Ghibli Museum. For something completely different, Tokyo’s Ghibli Museum is a wonderful homage to the work of Studio Ghibli.
  • Akihabara. Japan’s legendary gaming culture is best represented by Akihabara, a central Tokyo district packed full of electronics shops and especially keen on anime and manga. If it’s this side of Japan you’re keen to explore, this is the place for you.
  • Cat Island. There are more cats than people on Tashirojima. Need we say more?

Really, the list of things you can do is never-ending.

Tips for a great trip

Nothing can quite prepare you for a trip to Japan. But still, here are a few pointers.

  • Have cash. As already mentioned, card payments aren’t quite as common as you might assume. Make sure you have cash, then – and somewhere to keep your coins.
  • Get a data SIM card. You’ll need to make sure your phone is unlocked for this, but the extra effort of that could be worth it, as this will mean you can get online pretty easily. Alternatively, look into getting a pocket wifi router, as TokyoCheapo reports.
  • Avoid “Golden Week”. Japan has a bizarre pile-up of public holidays around the start of May each year: four of them within a week. It’s known as Golden Week, and if you’re hoping to avoid the crowds during your trip, don’t go then. Unsurprisingly, that’s when Japanese people tend to go on holiday, too.

Things to be aware of

Here are just a few extra pointers that might help you settle in a little easier.

  • There aren’t many public garbage bins. Instead, they tend to be inside establishments – convenience stores, for example. So it pays to think about your garbage needs carefully.
  • Bring your own soap. Weirdly, Japan is not big on soap in public bathrooms, so you should consider bringing your own.
  • Bow back. Japan is a polite country, and that politeness sometimes takes the form of a bow. If someone bows to you, reciprocate.
  • Don’t tip. Tipping is one of those things that seems to be different in pretty much every country. In Japan they keep it simple, and just don’t do it. They might even turn your tip down if you try – it could be considered offensive.

Don’t forget to plan ahead and consider getting a Wise Mastercard Debit Card to help you get the most for your money and forget about the worries of exchanging money.

Enjoy your trip to Japan, whatever you plan to do while you’re there. It’s a unique place, that anyone would have a wonderful time exploring.


  1. Money in Japan
  2. Visa Info
  3. More Visa Info
  4. JRail Pass
  5. Wise Currency Converter
  6. Regional Travel Info
  7. More Regional Travel Info

All sources accurate as of 23 Jan 2020

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